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What are Retroviruses?

Nicole Madison
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Retroviruses belong to the Retroviridae family of viruses. Their genetic material consists of ribonucleic acid (RNA), instead of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Viruses of this type also contain reverse transcriptase. Retroviruses are known to lead to certain types of cancers in both humans and animals, as well as a range of viral infections. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), is one example.

These viruses are unique in that they reproduce by transcribing themselves into DNA. Reverse transcriptase, an enzyme within a retrovirus, makes it possible for the RNA to perform as a template of sorts for the transcription process. Once transcription has taken place, the viral DNA gains access to the DNA of a cell, reproducing along with the cell and its offspring. Within the cell’s offspring, referred to as daughter cells, the viral DNA creates RNA replicas of itself. Finally, these replicas leave the daughter cells after coating themselves with a protein.

Retroviruses reverse the normal cell process, which uses RNA to synthesize DNA. By reversing this process, they take up permanent residence in the genetic material of the infected cell. In some cases, these viruses destroy the cells they change; such is the case with HIV. Others cause cells to become cancerous. This is what occurs with certain types of leukemia.

Viruses in this family are prone to mutation, and for this reason, often become resistant to antiviral drugs within a relatively short period of time. This level of mutability is one of the reasons cited for the difficulty scientists face in trying to develop a safe and effective HIV vaccine.

Antibiotics are not effective against retroviruses. They are helpful for battling bacterial-based infections, but are useless against viruses. Instead, anti-viral medications must be developed and used to combat them. Vaccination can be used to prevent diseases caused by viruses, including retroviruses. Unfortunately, developing effective vaccines is complicated work that may take years, or even generations, to accomplish.

Despite the fact that retroviruses are indicated in some potentially deadly diseases, they are vulnerable to something as simple as ordinary soap and water. Handwashing can render them inactive. Physical barriers can be useful in preventing their spread, as well. Such barriers include condoms, rubber gloves, and facial masks.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison , Writer
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.

Discussion Comments

By anon943220 — On Mar 31, 2014

Horse pucky, about antibacterial drugs being useless against cancer causing entities. The only female disease that was in the aids pantheon was cervical cancer, and was removed when it was discovered that a regimen of simple antibiotics was enough to bring cervical cancer to its knees. The virus was HPV, not a retro virus. And, how do you explain the fact that I had influenza at 12 years of age, have never had a flu shot, and never have had the flu in 62 years?

By anon327181 — On Mar 26, 2013

What is the difference between retroviruses and regular viruses?

By anon208809 — On Aug 24, 2011

Something about the pictures of doctors and nurses on this site bother me. From the perspective of a vulnerable person learning about a disease, the last thing I want to see is a bunch of pictures of medical professionals wearing masks and pointing at the viewer. Perhaps you might consider some "friendlier" photos.

By anon166809 — On Apr 10, 2011

The average person still does not know the difference between a virus and bacteria.

The medical community and media still don't explain and delineate these clearly to the public.

So, yes, most people mistakenly believe that antibiotics will work on viruses.

By anon164338 — On Mar 31, 2011

The term "Virus" does not mean "retrovirus alone. When looking for a definition pertaining to virus, i got "computer viruses." Seriously? i cannot believe there is no definition for "real virus" on this site.

By stolaf23 — On Jan 19, 2011

@afterall,I admit I'm not sure why this article mentions antibiotics in a retrovirus definition either. Either way, it does need to be said that antibiotics are never useful, as you said, against viruses. This overuse you mentioned has also led to a lot of mutation in bacteria, similar to the way this article mentions retrovirus mutation; beyond that, viruses and bacteria have very little in common.

By afterall — On Jan 17, 2011

By even mentioning antibiotics in this article, you sort of confuse a really basic point. Antibiotics are not just ineffective against retroviruses, they are ineffective against any viruses.

Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections. That is their only true use; while people use them in things like animal husbandry to ward of disease, and some people believe they can fix anything, they don't; only bacteria. Furthermore, use of one kind of antibiotic once means that it won't work again against the same illness if you have it again later; never, ever use antibiotics unless prescribed them, and then you also need to use them all; saving and hoarding antibiotics is never good.

Nicole Madison

Nicole Madison


Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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