Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) occupy a substantial fraction of the genome and impact cellular function with both beneficial and deleterious consequences. The vast majority of HERV sequences descend from ancient retroviral families no longer capable of infection or genomic propagation. In fact, most are no longer represented by full-length proviruses but by solitary long terminal repeats (solo LTRs) that arose via non-allelic recombination events between the two LTRs of a proviral insertion. Because LTR-LTR recombination events may occur long after proviral insertion but are challenging to detect in resequencing data, we hypothesize that this mechanism produces an underappreciated amount of genomic variation in the human population. To test this idea, we develop a computational pipeline specifically designed to capture such dimorphic HERV alleles from short-read genome sequencing data. When applied to 279 individuals sequenced as part of the Simons Genome Diversity Project, the pipeline retrieves most of the dimorphic variants previously reported for the HERV-K(HML2) subfamily as well as dozens of additional candidates, including members of the HERV-H and HERV-W families. We experimentally validate several of these candidates, including the first reported instance of an unfixed HERV-W provirus. These data indicate that human proviral content exhibit more extensive interindividual variation than previously recognized. These findings have important implications for our understanding of the contribution of HERVs to human physiology and disease.
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