A retrovirus is a type of RNA virus that inserts a copy of its genome into the DNA of a host cell that it invades, thus changing the genome of that cell. Such viruses are specifically classified as single-stranded positive-sense RNA viruses.
Once inside the host cell's cytoplasm, the virus uses its own reverse transcriptase enzyme to produce DNA from its RNA genome, the reverse of the usual pattern, thus retro (backwards). The new DNA is then incorporated into the host cell genome by an integrase enzyme, at which point the retroviral DNA is referred to as a provirus. The host cell then treats the viral DNA as part of its own genome, transcribing and translating the viral genes along with the cell's own genes, producing the proteins required to assemble new copies of the virus. It is difficult to detect the virus until it has infected the host. At that point, the infection will persist indefinitely.
In most viruses, DNA is transcribed into RNA, and then RNA is translated into protein. However, retroviruses function differently, as their RNA is reverse-transcribed into DNA, which is integrated into the host cell's genome (when it becomes a provirus), and then undergoes the usual transcription and translational processes to express the genes carried by the virus. The information contained in a retroviral gene is thus used to generate the corresponding protein via the sequence: RNA → DNA → RNA → polypeptide. This extends the fundamental process identified by Francis Crick (one gene-one peptide) in which the sequence is DNA → RNA → peptide (proteins are made of one or more polypeptide chains; for example, haemoglobin is a four-chain peptide).
Retroviruses are valuable research tools in molecular biology, and they have been used successfully in gene delivery systems.
Virions of retroviruses consist of enveloped particles about 100 nm in diameter. The virions also contain two identical single-stranded RNA molecules 7–10 kilobases in length. Although virions of different retroviruses do not have the same morphology or biology, all the virion components are very similar.
The main virion components are:
Envelope: composed of lipids (obtained from the host plasma membrane during the budding process) as well as glycoprotein encoded by the env gene. The retroviral envelope serves three distinct functions: protection from the extracellular environment via the lipid bilayer, enabling the retrovirus to enter/exit host cells through endosomal membrane trafficking, and the ability to directly enter cells by fusing with their membranes.
RNA: consists of a dimer RNA. It has a cap at the 5' end and a poly(A) tail at the 3' end. The RNA genome also has terminal noncoding regions, which are important in replication, and internal regions that encode virion proteins for gene expression. The 5' end includes four regions, which are R, U5, PBS, and L. The R region is a short repeated sequence at each end of the genome used during the reverse transcription to ensure correct end-to-end transfer in the growing chain. U5, on the other hand, is a short unique sequence between R and PBS. PBS (primer binding site) consists of 18 bases complementary to 3' end of tRNA primer. L region is an untranslated leader region that gives the signal for packaging of the genome RNA. The 3' end includes 3 regions, which are PPT (polypurine tract), U3, and R. The PPT is a primer for plus-strand DNA synthesis during reverse transcription. U3 is a sequence between PPT and R, which serves as a signal that the provirus can use in transcription. R is the terminal repeated sequence at 3' end.
Proteins: consisting of gag proteins, protease (PR), pol proteins, and env proteins.
Protease is expressed differently in different viruses. It functions in proteolytic cleavages during virion maturation to make mature gag and pol proteins.
Pol proteins are responsible for synthesis of viral DNA and integration into host DNA after infection.
Env proteins play a role in association and entry of virions into the host cell. Possessing a functional copy of an env gene is what makes retroviruses distinct from retroelements. The ability of the retrovirus to bind to its target host cell using specific cell-surface receptors is given by the surface component (SU) of the Env protein, while the ability of the retrovirus to enter the cell via membrane fusion is imparted by the membrane-anchored trans-membrane component (TM). Thus it is the Env protein that enables the retrovirus to be infectious.