A retrovirus is any virus belonging to the viral family Retroviridae. They are enveloped viruses possessing an RNA genome, and replicate via a DNA intermediate. Retroviruses rely on the enzyme reverse transcriptase to perform the reverse transcription of its genome from RNA into DNA, which can then be integrated into the host's genome with an integrase enzyme. The virus then replicates as part of the cell's DNA.
Description of virus
The virus itself stores its nucleic acid, in the form of a +mRNA (including the 5'cap and 3'PolyA inside the virion) genome and serves as a means of delivery of that genome into cells it targets as an obligate parasite, and constitutes the infection. Once in the host's cell, the RNA strands undergo reverse transcription in the cytosol and are integrated into the host's genome, at which point the retroviral DNA is referred to as a provirus.
When retroviruses have integrated their own genome into the germ line, their genome is passed on to a following generation. These endogenous retroviruses, contrasted with exogenous ones, now make up 5-8% of the human genome. Most insertions have no known function and are often referred to as "junk DNA". However, many endogenous retroviruses play important roles in host biology, such as control of gene transcription, cell fusion during placental development in the course of the germination of an embryo, and resistance to exogenous retroviral infection. Endogenous retroviruses have also received special attention in the research of immunology-related pathologies, such as autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, although endogenous retroviruses have not yet been proven to play any causal role in this class of disease. The role of endogenous retroviruses in human gene evolution is explored in a 2005 peer-reviewed article.
While transcription was classically thought to only occur from DNA to RNA, reverse transcriptase transcribes RNA into DNA. The term "retro" in retrovirus refers to this reversal (making DNA from RNA) of the central dogma of molecular biology. Reverse transcriptase activity outside of retroviruses has been found in almost all eukaryotes, enabling the generation and insertion of new copies of retrotransposons into the host genome. It is important to note that a retrovirus must "bring" its own reverse transcriptase in its capsid, otherwise it is unable to utilize the infected cell's enzymes to carry out the task, due to the unusual nature of producing DNA from RNA.
Because reverse transcription lacks the usual proofreading of DNA replication, this kind of virus mutates very often. This enables the virus to grow resistant to antiviral pharmaceuticals quickly, and impedes, for example, the development of an effective vaccine against the retrovirus HIV.
Retrovirus genomes commonly contain these three open reading frames that encode for proteins that can be found in the mature virus:
- group-specific antigen (gag) codes for core and structural proteins of the virus;
- polymerase (pol) codes for reverse transcriptase, protease and integrase; and,
- envelope (env) codes for the retroviral coat proteins.
This DNA can be incoporated into host genome as a provirus that can be passed on to progeny cells. In this way some of retroviruses can convert normal cells into cancer cells.
Development of retroviruses
It has been speculated that the RNA to DNA transcription processes used by retroviruses may have first caused DNA to be used as genetic material.
The following genera are included here:
- Genus Alpharetrovirus; type species: Avian leukosis virus
- Genus Betaretrovirus; type species: Mouse mammary tumour virus
- Genus Gammaretrovirus; type species: Murine leukemia virus; others include Feline leukemia virus
- Genus Deltaretrovirus; type species: Bovine leukemia virus; others include the cancer-causing Human T-lymphotropic virus
- Genus Epsilonretrovirus; type species: Walleye dermal sarcoma virus
- Genus Lentivirus; type species: Human immunodeficiency virus 1; others include Simian, Feline immunodeficiency viruses
- Genus Spumavirus; type species: Chimpanzee foamy virus
These were previously divided into three subfamilies (Oncovirinae, Lentivirinae, and Spumavirinae), but with current knowledge of retroviruses, this is no longer appropriate. (The term oncovirus is still commonly used, though.)
Endogenous retroviruses are not formally included in this classification system, and are broadly classified into three classes, on the basis of relatedness to exogenous genera:
- Class I are most similar to the gammaretroviruses
- Class II are most similar to the betaretroviruses and alpharetroviruses
- Class III are most similar to the spumaviruses
Antiretroviral drugs are medications for the treatment of infection by retroviruses, primarily HIV. Different classes of antiretroviral drugs act at different stages of the HIV life cycle. Combination of several (typically three or four) antiretroviral drugs is known as Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART).
The genetic barrier is loosely defined as the difficulty for retroviruses to evade antiretroviral drugs by mutating into resistant types. 
- Robert Belshaw (2004). "Long-term reinfection of the human genome by endogenous retroviruses". Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 101 (14): 4894–99. PMID 15044706.
- Medstrand P, van de Lagemaat L, Dunn C, Landry J, Svenback D, Mager D (2005). "Impact of transposable elements on the evolution of mammalian gene regulation". Cytogenet Genome Res. 110 (1-4): 342–52. PMID 16093686.
- Computing the genetic barrier N. Beerenwinkel, T. Sing, M. Daumer, R. Kaiser, T. Lengauer.
- Retrovirology Scientific journal
- Retroviruses at rcn.com
- NCBI retrovirus book online
- Annals of Science: Darwin’s Surprise, New Yorker Dec 3 2007
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