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Hiv Life Cycle: Entering Cells

Like a typical virus, HIV infects a cell and appropriates the host's cellular components and machinery to make many copies of itself. The new viruses then break out of the cell and infect other cells. HIV stores its genetic information on an RNA molecule rather than a DNA chromosome. This is a distinguishing characteristic of retroviruses, which are viruses that must first convert their RNA genomes into DNA before they can reproduce.

Each HIV virion (viral particle) is a small sphere composed of several layers. The external layer is a membrane coat, or envelope, obtained from the host cell in which the particle was made. Underneath this membrane lies HIV's gp120 protein interacts with two proteins on the surface of the target cell. Gp41 then promotes fusion of the virus membrane with the cell membrane, allowing the viral contents to enter the cell. Adapted from an article in Molecular Medicine Today, 1998. a shell made from proteins, called a nucleocapsid. Inside the protein shell are two copies of the virion's RNA genome and three kinds of proteins, which are used by the virion to establish itself once inside the cell that it infects.

Two proteins, called gp120 and gp41, enable the virion to recognize the type of cell to enter. These proteins project from the HIV membrane coat. Gp120 binds to two specific proteins found on the target cell's surface (these target-cell proteins are called receptors). The first receptor, CD4, is found on immune system cells known as CD4 T cells, and also sometimes on two cell types known as macrophages and dendritic cells. The immune system uses CD4 T cells in the initial step in making antibodies against infectious agents. After binding to CD4, the HIV protein called gp120 binds with a second cell membrane protein, commonly referred to as the co-receptor. The co-receptor can be one of many different proteins, depending on the cell type. The two most common are CXCR4, which is normally found on CD4 T cells, and CCR5, a receptor found on CD4 T cells as well as on certain macrophages and dendritic cells. In the absence of HIV, CXCR4 and CCR5 allow these immune system cells to respond to chemical signals, but when HIV infects the cells, the HIV commandeers their usage. In some cases, individuals have a mutation in their co-receptor that prevents HIV from entering their cells.

Once gp120 has bound to both the CD4 receptor and co-receptor, the gp41 protein fuses HIV's membrane envelope with the cellular membrane, injecting the virus into the target cell. Once in the cytoplasm, the viral protein shell opens up and releases the viral proteins—a reverse transcriptase, a viral integrase, and a protease—along with the viral RNA strands. The reverse transcriptase copies the RNA strands into DNA. The viral integrase then helps insert the DNA copies into the cell's chromosome. At this point, the virus is called a provirus, and the life cycle halts. The provirus may remain dormant in the cell's chromosome for months or years, waiting for the T cell to become activated by the immune system.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 2HIV - Hiv And Aids, Hiv Life Cycle: Entering Cells, Hiv Life Cycle: Reproduction, Hiv's Immune-system Impairment Mechanism