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18.7: Viruses

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     Learning Objectives
    • To explain how viruses reproduce in cells.

    Viruses are visible only under an electron microscope. They come in a variety of shapes, ranging from spherical to rod shaped. The fact that they contain either deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA)—but never both—allows them to be divided into two major classes: DNA viruses and RNA viruses (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    19.17v1.jpg Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Viruses. Viruses come in a variety of shapes that are determined by their protein coats.

    Most RNA viruses use their nucleic acids in much the same way as the DNA viruses, penetrating a host cell and inducing it to replicate the viral RNA and synthesize viral proteins. The new RNA strands and viral proteins are then assembled into new viruses. Some RNA viruses, however, called retroviruses (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)), synthesize DNA in the host cell, in a process that is the reverse of the DNA-to-RNA transcription that normally occurs in cells. The synthesis of DNA from an RNA template is catalyzed by the enzyme reverse transcriptase.

    19.18v2.jpg Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Life Cycle of a Retrovirus

    In 1987, azidothymidine (AZT, also known as zidovudine or the brand name Retrovir) became the first drug approved for the treatment of AIDS. It works by binding to reverse transcriptase in place of deoxythymidine triphosphate, after which, because AZT does not have a 3′OH group, further replication is blocked. In the past 10 years, several other drugs have been approved that also act by inhibiting the viral reverse transcriptase.


    Raltegravir (Isentress) is a newer anti-AIDS drug that was approved by the FDA in October 2007. This drug inhibits the integrase enzyme that is needed to integrate the HIV DNA into cellular DNA, an essential step in the production of more HIV particles.


    A major problem in treating HIV infections is that the virus can become resistant to any of these drugs. One way to combat the problem has been to administer a “cocktail” of drugs, typically a combination of two reverse transcriptase inhibitors along with a protease inhibitor. These treatments can significantly reduce the amount of HIV in an infected person.

    Career Focus: Genetics Counselor

    A genetics counselor works with individuals and families who have birth defects or genetic disorders or a family history of a disease, such as cancer, with a genetic link. A genetics counselor may work in a variety of health-care settings (such as a hospital) to obtain family medical and reproductive histories; explain how genetic conditions are inherited; explain the causes, diagnosis, and care of these conditions; interpret the results of genetic tests; and aid the individual or family in making decisions regarding genetic diseases or conditions. A certified genetics counselor must obtain a master’s degree from an accredited program. Applicants to these graduate programs usually have an undergraduate degree in biology, psychology, or genetics.

    genetics counselor.jpg Photo courtesy of the United States National Institutes for Health,


    Viruses are very small infectious agents that contain either DNA or RNA as their genetic material. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

    18.7: Viruses is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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