noun, plural: retroviruses

Any of the group of viruses in the family Retroviridae. The virus is characterized by having a single-stranded RNA as its genetic material, which it uses to incorporate into the genome of the host cell as a means to propagate.


The name is derived from the ability of the viruses to reverse the archetypal flow of transcription. This makes them different from other RNA viruses. RNA is initially being transcribed into DNA. This is in contrast to the usual DNA being transcribed into RNA. This is made possible by the enzyme reverse transcriptase that facilitates this form of transcription. The resulting DNA is then incorporated into the genome of the host cell.

Many retroviruses are pathogenic to animals because they can trigger normal cells to become cancer cells. HIV is an example of a retrovirus.

Word origin: retro- (“reverse”, from its reverse direction of replication) + virus.

Related form(s): retroviral (adjective)

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