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Virology. 2004 Jan 5;318(1):183-91.

Emergence of vertebrate retroviruses and envelope capture.

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Institut de Génétique Moléculaire de Montpellier (IGMM), CNRS-UMR5535, IFR122, F-34293 Montpellier, cedex 5, France.


Retroviruses are members of the superfamily of retroelements, mobile genetic elements that transpose via an RNA intermediate. However, retroviruses are distinct from other retroelements in that their "transposition" is not confined to single cells but extends to neighboring cells and organisms. As such, the "transposition" of these elements is defined as infection. It appears that a key step in the conversion of a retrotransposon into a retrovirus is the modular acquisition or capture of an envelope glycoprotein (Env) which facilitates dissemination from its initial host cell. Here we present several examples of retroviruses for which envelope capture has been identified. Indeed, capture may explain the notable conservation of env sequences among otherwise phylogenetically distant retroviruses. In a recent example, sequence homologies reported between the env of the phylogenetically distant murine leukemia viruses (MLV) and human T cell leukemia viruses (HTLV) argue in favor of an env capture by the latter. Env acquisition can provide new adaptive properties to replication-competent viruses in addition to altering their host range. Also, the captured env can alter the spectrum of physiological affects of infection in new host cells and organisms. The elucidation of such envelope exchanges and properties thereof should contribute significantly to the clarification of retroviral phylogeny, insight into retroviral pathogenesis, and to the discovery of new retroviruses.

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