HIV Virus: Structure and Function

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bridgett Payseur

Bridgett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and teaches college biology.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), an illness that has weighed on global communities for years. Learn about the structure, replication, and results of HIV infections. Updated: 12/13/2021


Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV is a major public health crisis. According to the UN AIDS Program, nearly 37 million people were infected with HIV worldwide as of 2016, with approximately 1.1 million AIDS-related deaths annually.

HIV belongs to the retrovirus family, and the genus lentivirus; this describes how HIV copies its genetic information, and the slow progression of the disease (lento = slow). HIV requires a host cell in order to copy its genetic information and make new virus particles. For HIV to be able to enter a cell, the cell must have the CD4 receptor. This is found on immune cells, such as helper T cells that help activate the immune system to fight infections, and monocytes that act as sentries, eating up any possible foreign invaders and alerting the immune system.

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  • 0:00 HIV
  • 1:02 HIV Structure
  • 2:22 HIV Replication
  • 4:18 Results of the HIV Infection
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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HIV Structure

HIV is a round, ball-shaped virus. It has two single strands of RNA for its genome. The RNA is used to carry the genetic information that is passed on when new HIV particles are produced. This is different than a normal cell, which uses DNA to carry its genetic information.

The outermost layer of the HIV particle is the envelope. The envelope takes part of the host cell's membrane as the virus leaves to make a membrane for itself. The envelope also has some proteins in it that help the virus invade the next host cell. One protein, gp120, helps the virus attach to the CD4 receptor on the host cell. The other protein, gp41, helps the virus fuse with the cell membrane and enter the cell. (Gp stands for glycoprotein, which is a protein with a carbohydrate attached. The number, 41 or 120, tells how big the protein is).

(A) HIV merging with a cell (B) HIV viral particles being packaged (C) Final HIV viral particle
HIV infection

Inside the envelope is the viral matrix. The p17 in the matrix (P stands for protein) helps hold the envelope proteins gp120 and gp41 to the rest of the virus. Inside the matrix is the viral core, made up of p24. The core houses the viral genome, as well as enzymes that the virus will need to replicate in the host cell.

HIV Replication

Like all viruses, HIV isn't considered a living thing because it requires a host cell in order to replicate. While HIV is dependent on its host cell, it does supply some of its own proteins for replication, as mentioned earlier.

When HIV enters a cell, one of the first things it needs to do is reverse transcription of its RNA genome. Normally, biology tells us that DNA is converted to RNA in a process called transcription. However, HIV does this backwards and converts RNA to DNA. This is where the name retrovirus comes from - retro means backwards. HIV uses one of the enzymes it brings with it in its matrix, called reverse transcriptase, to do this job.

HIV Life Cycle
HIV life cycle

After the DNA has been made, the next step in the virus' life cycle is integration. The newly made DNA is inserted into the host cell's own genome. This means that even if HIV is not actively making new virus particles, its genetic information is being copied every time an infected cell replicates. This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to get rid of an HIV infection - the virus can hide in these so-called reservoirs when the environment is not good for making new viruses. Once the environment has improved, it can re-activate and make more viruses again.

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