How the Virus Works

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Like all viruses, HIV cannot grow or reproduce on its own. In order to make new copies of itself it must infect the cells of a living organism.

HIV belongs to a special class of viruses called retroviruses. Within this class, HIV is placed in the subgroup of lentiviruses. Other lentiviruses include SIV, FIV, Visna and CAEV, which cause diseases in monkeys, cats, sheep and goats.

The structure of HIV

What does HIV look like?

An HIV particle is around 100-150 billionths of a metre in diameter. That's about the same as:

  • 0.1 microns
  • 4 millionths of an inch
  • one twentieth of the length of an E. coli bacterium
  • one seventieth of the diameter of a human CD4+ white blood cell.

Unlike most bacteria, HIV particles are much too small to be seen through an ordinary microscope. However they can be seen clearly with an electron microscope.

The viral core (or capsid) is usually bullet-shaped and is made from the protein p24. Inside the core are three enzymes required for HIV replication called reverse transcriptase, integrase and protease.

Also held within the core is HIV's genetic material, which consists of two identical strands of RNA.

*The Structure of HIV is made up of a viral envelope and viral core.

What is RNA?

Almost all organisms, including most viruses, store their genetic material on long strands of DNA. Retroviruses are the exception because their genes are composed of RNA (Ribonucleic Acid).

RNA has a very similar structure to DNA. However, small differences between the two molecules mean that HIV's replication process is a bit more complicated than that of most other viruses.

HIV life cycle

HIV can only replicate (make new copies of itself) inside human cells. The process typically begins when a virus bumps into a cell that carries on its surface a special protein called CD4. The spikes on the surface of the HIV particle stick to the CD4 and allow them to fuse. The contents of the HIV particle are then released into the cell.

Importantly, HIV infects the cells (T-helper cells) that form the body's immune system. As HIV infects more cells, the immune system becomes weaker - which can lead to a person developing AIDSHIV treatment protects the cells and so keeps the immune system strong - preventing AIDS.

The type of HIV drugs that can stop this part of the process are called Fusion or Entry Inhibitors.

Reverse transcription and integration

Once inside the cell, the HIV enzyme called reverse transcriptase converts the viral RNA into DNA. This DNA is then transported to the cell's nucleus, where it is inserted into the human DNA by the HIV enzyme integrase.

Once inserted, the HIV DNA is known as provirus. It is at this point that HIV affects the cell in such a way, that it begins to die - weakening the immune system. 1

The type of HIV drugs that can stop this part of the process are called NRTIsNNRTIs and Integrase Inhibitors.

Transcription and translation

HIV provirus may lie dormant within a cell for a long time. But when the cell becomes activated, it treats HIV genes in much the same way as human genes. First it converts them into messenger RNA (using human enzymes).

Then the messenger RNA is transported outside the nucleus, and is used as a blueprint for producing new HIV proteins and enzymes.

Complete copies of HIV genetic material are contained among the strands of messenger RNA. These gather together with newly made HIV proteins and enzymes to form new viral particles, which are released from the cell, known as 'budding'.

The enzyme protease then chops up long strands of protein into smaller pieces, which are used to construct mature viral cores of new HIV particles.

The type of HIV drugs that can stop this part of the process are called Protease Inhibitors.

The newly matured HIV particles are ready to infect another cell and begin the replication process all over again. In this way the virus quickly spreads through the human body.

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