|HIV retrovirus schematic of cell infection, virus production and virus structure|
|Subfamilies and genera|
A retrovirus is a type of virus that inserts a copy of its RNA genome[a] into the DNA of a host cell that it invades, thus changing the genome of that cell. 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.
Although retroviruses have different subfamilies, they have three basic groups: the oncoretroviruses (oncogenic retroviruses), the lentiviruses (slow retroviruses) and the spumaviruses (foamy viruses). The oncoretroviruses are able to cause cancer in some species, the lentiviruses are able to cause severe immunodeficiency and death in humans and other animals, and the spumaviruses are benign and not linked to any disease in humans or animals.
Many retroviruses cause serious diseases in humans, other mammals, and birds. Human retroviruses include HIV-1 and HIV-2, the cause of the disease AIDS. Also, human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV) causes disease in humans. The murine leukemia viruses (MLVs) cause cancer in mouse hosts. 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 outer lipid envelope consists of glycoprotein. The virions also contain two identical single-stranded RNA molecules 7–10 kilobases in length. The two molecules are present as a dimer, formed by base pairing between complementary sequences. Interaction sites between the two RNA molecules have been identified as a "kissing stem-loop". 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:
The retroviral genome is packaged as viral particles. These viral particles are dimers of single-stranded, positive-sense, linear RNA molecules.
Retroviruses (and orterviruses in general) follow a layout of 5'–gag–pro–pol–env–3' in the RNA genome. gag and pol encode polyproteins, each managing the capsid and replication. The pol region encodes enzymes necessary for viral replication, such as reverse transcriptase, protease and integrase. Depending on the virus, the genes may overlap or fuse into larger polyprotein chains. Some viruses contain additional genes. The lentivirus genus, the spumavirus genus, the HTLV / bovine leukemia virus (BLV) genus, and a newly introduced fish virus genus are retroviruses classified as complex. These viruses have genes called accessory genes, in addition to gag, pro, pol and env genes. Accessory genes are located between pol and env, downstream from the env, including the U3 region of LTR, or in the env and overlapping portions. While accessory genes have auxiliary roles, they also coordinate and regulate viral gene expression. In addition, some retroviruses may carry genes called oncogenes or onc genes from another class. Retroviruses with these genes (also called transforming viruses) are known for their ability to quickly cause tumors in animals and transform cells in culture into an oncogenic state.
The polyproteins are cleaved into smaller proteins each with their own function. The nucleotides encoding them are known as subgenes.
When retroviruses have integrated their own genome into the germ line, their genome is passed on to a following generation. These endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), 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.
While transcription was classically thought to occur only 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 usual direction of transcription. It still obeys the central dogma of molecular biology, which states that information can be transferred from nucleic acid to nucleic acid but cannot be transferred back from protein to either protein or nucleic acid. 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. These inserts are transcribed by enzymes of the host into new RNA molecules that enter the cytosol. Next, some of these RNA molecules are translated into viral proteins. The proteins encoded by the gag and pol genes are translated from genome-length mRNAs into Gag and Gag–Pol polyproteins. In example, for the gag gene; it is translated into molecules of the capsid protein, and for the pol gene; it is translated into molecules of reverse transcriptase. Retroviruses need a lot more amount of the Gag proteins than the Pol proteins and have developed advanced systems to synthesize the required amount of each. As an example, after Gag synthesis nearly 95 percent of the ribosomes terminate translation, while other ribosomes continue translation to synthesize Gag–Pol. In the rough endoplasmic reticulum glycosylation begins and the env gene is translated from spliced mRNAs in the rough endoplasmic reticulum, into molecules of the envelope protein. When the envelope protein molecules are carried to the Golgi complex, they are divided into surface glycoprotein and transmembrane glycoprotein by a host protease. These two glycoprotein products stay in close affiliation, and they are transported to the plasma membrane after further glycosylation.
It is important to note that a retrovirus must "bring" its own reverse transcriptase in its capsid, otherwise it is unable to utilize the enzymes of the infected cell to carry out the task, due to the unusual nature of producing DNA from RNA.
Industrial drugs that are designed as protease and reverse-transcriptase inhibitors are made such that they target specific sites and sequences within their respective enzymes. However these drugs can quickly become ineffective due to the fact that the gene sequences that code for the protease and the reverse transcriptase quickly mutate. These changes in bases cause specific codons and sites with the enzymes to change and thereby avoid drug targeting by losing the sites that the drug actually targets.
Because reverse transcription lacks the usual proofreading of DNA replication, a retrovirus mutates very often. This enables the virus to grow resistant to antiviral pharmaceuticals quickly, and impedes the development of effective vaccines and inhibitors for the retrovirus.
One difficulty faced with some retroviruses, such as the Moloney retrovirus, involves the requirement for cells to be actively dividing for transduction. As a result, cells such as neurons are very resistant to infection and transduction by retroviruses. This gives rise to a concern that insertional mutagenesis due to integration into the host genome might lead to cancer or leukemia. This is unlike Lentivirus, a genus of Retroviridae, which are able to integrate their RNA into the genome of non-dividing host cells.
Two RNA genomes are packaged into each retrovirus particle, but, after an infection, each virus generates only one provirus. After infection, reverse transcription occurs and this process is accompanied by recombination. Recombination involves template strand switching between the two genome copies (copy choice recombination) during reverse transcription. From 5 to 14 recombination events per genome occur at each replication cycle. Genetic recombination appears to be necessary for maintaining genome integrity and as a repair mechanism for salvaging damaged genomes.
The DNA formed after reverse transcription (the provirus) is longer than the RNA genome because each of the terminals have the U3 - R - U5 sequences called long terminal repeat (LTR). Thus, 5' terminal has the extra U3 sequence, while the other terminal has the U5 sequence. LTRs are able to send signals for vital tasks to be carried out such as initiation of RNA production or management of the rate of transcription. This way, LTRs can control replication, hence, the entire progress of the viral cycle. Although located in the nucleus, the non-integrated retroviral cDNA is a very weak substrate for transcription. For this reason, an integrated provirus is a necessary for permanent and an effective expression of retroviral genes.
This DNA can be incorporated into host genome as a provirus that can be passed on to progeny cells. The retrovirus DNA is inserted at random into the host genome. Because of this, it can be inserted into oncogenes. In this way some retroviruses can convert normal cells into cancer cells. Some provirus remains latent in the cell for a long period of time before it is activated by the change in cell environment.
Studies of retroviruses led to the first demonstrated synthesis of DNA from RNA templates, a fundamental mode for transferring genetic material that occurs in both eukaryotes and prokaryotes. 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. In this model, the RNA world hypothesis, cellular organisms adopted the more chemically stable DNA when retroviruses evolved to create DNA from the RNA templates.
An estimate of the date of evolution of the foamy-like endogenous retroviruses placed the time of the most recent common ancestor at >.
Gammaretroviral and lentiviral vectors for gene therapy have been developed that mediate stable genetic modification of treated cells by chromosomal integration of the transferred vector genomes. This technology is of use, not only for research purposes, but also for clinical gene therapy aiming at the long-term correction of genetic defects, e.g., in stem and progenitor cells. Retroviral vector particles with tropism for various target cells have been designed. Gammaretroviral and lentiviral vectors have so far been used in more than 300 clinical trials, addressing treatment options for various diseases. Retroviral mutations can be developed to make transgenic mouse models to study various cancers and their metastatic models.
Retroviruses that cause tumor growth include Rous sarcoma virus and Mouse mammary tumor virus. Cancer can be triggered by proto-oncogenes that were mistakenly incorporated into proviral DNA or by the disruption of cellular proto-oncogenes. Rous sarcoma virus contains the src gene that triggers tumor formation. Later it was found that a similar gene in cells is involved in cell signaling, which was most likely excised with the proviral DNA. Nontransforming viruses can randomly insert their DNA into proto-oncogenes, disrupting the expression of proteins that regulate the cell cycle. The promoter of the provirus DNA can also cause over expression of regulatory genes. Retroviruses can cause diseases such as cancer and immunodeficiency. If viral DNA is integrated into host chromosomes, it can lead to permanent infections. It is therefore important to discover the body's response to retroviruses. Especially exogenous retroviruses are associated with pathogenic diseases. For example, mice have mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV), which is a retrovirus. This virus passes to newborn mice through mammary milk. The mice carrying the virus get mammary cancer because of the retrovirus when they are 6 months old. In addition, leukemia virus I (HTLV-1), found in human T cell, has been found in humans for many years. It is estimated that this retrovirus causes leukemia in the ages of 40 and 50. It has a replicable structure that can induce cancer. In addition to the usual gene sequence of retroviruses, HTLV-1 contains a fourth region, PX. This region encodes Tax, Rex, p12, p13 and p30 regulatory proteins. The Tax protein initiates the leukemic process and organizes the transcription of all viral genes in the integrated HTLV proviral DNA. 
Exogenous retroviruses are infectious RNA- or DNA-containing viruses that are transmitted from one organism to another. In the Baltimore classification system, which groups viruses together based on their manner of messenger RNA synthesis, they are classified into two groups: Group VI: single-stranded RNA viruses with a DNA intermediate in their life cycle, and Group VII: double-stranded DNA viruses with an RNA intermediate in their life cycle.
All members of Group VI use virally encoded reverse transcriptase, an RNA-dependent DNA polymerase, to produce DNA from the initial virion RNA genome. This DNA is often integrated into the host genome, as in the case of retroviruses and pseudoviruses, where it is replicated and transcribed by the host.
Group VI includes:
The family Retroviridae was previously divided into three subfamilies (Oncovirinae, Lentivirinae, and Spumavirinae), but are now divided into two: Orthoretrovirinae and Spumaretrovirinae. The term oncovirus is now commonly used to describe a cancer-causing virus. This family now includes the following genera:
Note that according to ICTV 2017, genus Spumavirus has been divided into five genera, and its former type species Simian foamy virus is now upgraded to genus Simiispumavirus with not less than 14 species, including new type species Eastern chimpanzee simian foamy virus.
Main article: dsDNA-RT virus
Both families in Group VII have DNA genomes contained within the invading virus particles. The DNA genome is transcribed into both mRNA, for use as a transcript in protein synthesis, and pre-genomic RNA, for use as the template during genome replication. Virally encoded reverse transcriptase uses the pre-genomic RNA as a template for the creation of genomic DNA.
Group VII includes:
The latter family is closely related to the newly proposed
whilst families Belpaoviridae, Metaviridae, Pseudoviridae, Retroviridae, and Caulimoviridae constitute the order Ortervirales.
Main article: Endogenous retrovirus
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:
Antiretroviral drugs are medications for the treatment of infection by retroviruses, primarily HIV. Different classes of antiretroviral drugs act on 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).
Feline leukemia virus and Feline immunodeficiency virus infections are treated with biologics, including the only immunomodulator currently licensed for sale in the United States, Lymphocyte T-Cell Immune Modulator (LTCI).