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Discovering Retroviruses: Beacons in the Biosphere

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Approximately eight percent of our DNA contains retroviral sequences that are millions of years old. Through engaging stories of scientific discovery, Anna Marie Skalka explains our evolving knowledge of these ancient denizens of the biosphere and how this understanding has significantly advanced research in genetic engineering, gene delivery systems, and precision medicine.

Discovering Retroviruses begins with the pioneer scientists who first encountered these RNA-containing viruses and solved the mystery of their reproduction. Like other viruses, retroviruses invade the cells of a host organism to reproduce. What makes them “retro” is a unique process of genetic information transfer. Instead of transcribing DNA into RNA as all living cells do, they transcribe their RNA into DNA. This viral DNA is then spliced into the host’s genome, where the cell’s synthetic machinery is co-opted to make new virus particles. The 100,000 pieces of retroviral DNA in the human genome are remnants from multiple invasions of our ancestors’ “germline” cells—the cells that allow a host organism to reproduce. Most of these bits of retroviral DNA are degenerated fossils, but some have been exploited during evolution, with profound effects on our physiology.

Some present-day circulating retroviruses cause cancers in humans and other animals. Others, like HIV, cause severe immunodeficiencies. But retroviruses also hold clues to innovative approaches that can prevent and treat these diseases. In laboratories around the world, retroviruses continue to shed light on future possibilities that are anything but “retro.”

Edition Number:
Skalka Anna Marie
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Anna Marie Skalka is Professor Emerita at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

  • List of Tables and Figures*
  • Introduction
  • 1. Early Pioneers
  • 2. Amending the Central Dogma
  • 3. The Origin of Retroviruses
  • 4. Retroviruses and Evolution
  • 5. Revealing the Genetic Basis of Cancer
  • 6. HIV and the AIDS Pandemic
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Suggested Readings
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
  • * Tables and Figures
    • Tables
      • 1.1. Selected Timelines for Discoveries in Genetics and Retrovirology
      • 2.1. The Retrovirus Family
      • 3.1. Major Classes of Transposable Elements in the Human Genome
    • Figures
      • 1.1. Mendel’s crosses depicted in a Punnett square
      • 1.2. Genes are encoded in DNA
      • 1.3. The Watson–Crick double helix is held together by nucleotide base pairing
      • 1.4. Semi-conservative duplication of DNA
      • 1.5. Organization of the ribosome
      • 1.6. Transcription of messenger RNA from genes in DNA
      • 1.7. The genetic code
      • 1.8. Translation of messenger RNA (mRNA) into protein
      • 2.1. Serial dilutions of a virus preparation and the bacteriophage plaque assay
      • 2.2. Plate assays for animal viruses
      • 2.3. Retroviral DNA synthesis and its integration into host DNA
      • 2.4. Particle architecture and genome organization of the prototype avian leukosis virus
      • 2.5. Reproduction cycle of the prototype avian leukosis virus in a host cell
      • 3.1. The Miller–Urey apparatus
      • 3.2. Self-splicing by the Tetrahymena ribozyme
      • 3.3. Successive steps in the transition from an RNA world to a DNA world
      • 3.4. The tree of life
      • 3.5. The retrotransposons
      • 3.6. Propagation of L1 LINE retrotransposons
      • 3.7. Telomeres are formed by addition of repeated sequences to chromosome ends via reverse transcription
      • 4.1. Nucleic acid hybridization
      • 4.2. Estimating the age of endogenous retroviruses from an evolutionary tree
      • 4.3. Endogenous retroviral DNA recombination induces host gene shuffling
      • 4.4. Regulatory sequences in the LTRs of endogenous retroviruses can affect host gene expression
      • 4.5. Splicing signals in HERVs can lead to altered cell messenger RNA production and abnormal protein formation
      • 4.6. The host-virus evolutionary arms race
      • 5.1. Isolation of a src probe by subtractive hybridization
      • 5.2. Signal transduction
      • 5.3. Origin of transducing retroviruses
      • 5.4. Major lymphocytes of the adaptive immune system
      • 5.5. HTLV-I provirus and genes encoding viral oncoproteins
      • 6.1. HIV antibody assay provides the first blood screen
      • 6.2. Cradle of the AIDS pandemic
      • 6.3. HIV-1 origins via cross-species transmissions of SIV
      • 6.4. Regulatory and auxiliary proteins encoded in the HIV-1 genome
      • 6.5. Life-sparing effect of HIV antiviral treatment
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