Regulatory T cells (Tregs) are not terminally differentiated but can acquire effector properties. Here we report an increased expression of human endogenous retrovirus 1 (HERV1-env) proteins in Tregs of patients with de novo autoimmune hepatitis and autoimmune hepatitis, which induces endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress. HERV1-env-triggered ER stress activates all three branches (IRE1, ATF6, and PERK) of the unfolded protein response (UPR). Our coimmunoprecipitation studies show an interaction between HERV1-env proteins and the ATF6 branch of the UPR. The activated form of ATF6α activates the expression of RORC and STAT3 by binding to promoter sequences and induces IL-17A production. Silencing of HERV1-env results in recovery of Treg suppressive function. These findings identify ER stress and UPR activation as key factors driving Treg plasticity (species: human).

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