A retrovirus is a virus which has a genome consisting of RNA. It relies on reverse transcriptase to perform a kind of reverse transcription of its genome from RNA into DNA for insertion by integrase into the host's genome. The virus itself is just a storage form for its RNA; the reverse transcription takes place in the host's cytosol. A retrovirus' genome integrated into the host's genome is called a provirus.

The retrovirus genome contains at least three genes:

  • gag codes for core and structural proteins of the virus.
  • pol codes for reverse transcriptase.
  • env codes for the virus hull proteins.

There are three known retrovirus categories :
  • Oncovirinae cause sarcomas and leukaemias (e.g., Rous Sarcoma Virus). They contain an onc gene which makes them oncogenic.
  • Lentivirinae cause slow progressive degenerative disorders (e.g., HIV).
  • Spumavirinae with unknown effects.
All four identified human retroviruses (HTLV 1&2, HIV 1&2) attack CD4 cells.

Another feature common to all retroviruses is a lipid envelope surrounding their capsid. It is essential for their function. This explains why retroviruses can be killed by just washing hands.

See also: HIV

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