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Diagram of a Retrovirus

Illustration of the structure of a retrovirus.

Retroviruses are infectious particles consisting of an RNA genome packaged in a protein capsid, surrounded by a lipid envelope. This lipid envelope contains polypeptide chains including receptor binding proteins which link to the membrane receptors of the host cell, initiating the process of infection.

Retroviruses contain RNA as the hereditary material in place of the more common DNA. In addition to RNA, retrovirus particles also contain the enzyme reverse transcriptase (or RTase), which causes synthesis of a complementary DNA molecule (cDNA) using virus RNA as a template.

When a retrovirus infects a cell, it injects its RNA into the cytoplasm of that cell along with the reverse transcriptase enzyme. The cDNA produced from the RNA template contains the virally derived genetic instructions and allows infection of the host cell to proceed.

The virus that causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is a retrovirus. It is called HIV for human immunodeficiency virus.

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