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Viral Genetics

Viral genetics, the study of the genetic mechanisms that operate during the life cycle of viruses, utilizes biophysical, biological, and genetic analyses to study the viral genome and its variation. The virus genome consists of only one type of nucleic acid, which could be a single or double stranded DNA or RNA. Single stranded RNA viruses could contain positive-sense (+RNA), which serves directly as mRNA or negative-sense RNA (-RNA) that must use an RNA polymerase to synthesize a complementary positive strand to serve as mRNA. Viruses are obligate parasites that are completely dependant on the host cell for the replication and transcription of their genomes as well as the translation of the mRNA transcripts into proteins. Viral proteins usually have a structural function, making up a shell around the genome, but may contain some enzymes that are necessary for the virus replication and life cycle in the host cell. Both bacterial virus (bacteriophages) and animal viruses play an important role as tools in molecular and cellular biology research.

Viruses are classified in two families depending on whether they have RNA or DNA genomes and whether these genomes are double or single stranded. Further subdivision into types takes into account whether the genome consists of a single RNA molecule or many molecules as in the case of segmented viruses. Four types of bacteriophages are widely used in biochemical and genetic research. These are the T phages, the temperate phages typified by bacteriophage lambda, the small DNA phages like M13, and the RNA phages. Animal viruses are subdivided in many classes and types. Class I viruses contain a single molecule of double stranded DNA and are exemplified by adenovirus, simian virus 40 (SV40), herpes viruses, and human papillomaviruses. Class II viruses are also called parvoviruses and are made of single stranded DNA that is copied in to double stranded DNA before transcription in the host cell. Class III viruses are double stranded RNA viruses that have segmented genomes which means that they contain 10-12 separate double stranded RNA molecules. The negative strands serve as template for mRNA synthesis. Class IV viruses, typified by poliovirus, have single plus strand genomic RNA that serves as the mRNA. Class V viruses contain a single negative strand RNA which serves as the template for the production of mRNA by specific virus enzymes. Class VI viruses are also known as retroviruses and contain double stranded RNA genome. These viruses have an enzyme called reverse transcriptase that can both copy minus strand DNA from genomic RNA catalyze the synthesis of a complementary plus DNA strand. The resulting double stranded DNA is integrated in the host chromosome and is transcribed by the host's own machinery. The resulting transcripts are either used to synthesize proteins or produce new viral particles. These new viruses are released by budding, usually without killing the host cell. Both HIV and HTLV viruses belong to this class of viruses.

Virus genetics is studied by either investigating genome mutations or exchange of genetic material during the life cycle of the virus. The frequency and types of genetic variations in the virus are influenced by the nature of the viral genome and its structure. Especially important are the type of the nucleic acid that influence the potential for the viral genome to integrate in the host, and the segmentation that influence exchange of genetic information through assortment and recombination.

Mutations in the virus genome could either occur spontaneously or be induced by physical and chemical means. Spontaneous mutations that arise naturally as a result of viral replication are either due to a defect in the genome replication machinery or to the incorporation of an analogous base instead of the normal one. Induced virus mutants are obtained by either using chemical mutants like nitrous oxide that acts directly on bases and modify them or by incorporating already modified bases in the virus genome by adding these bases as substrates during virus replication. Physical agents such as ultra-violet light and x rays can also be used in inducing mutations. Genotypically, the induced mutations are usually point mutations, deletions, and rarely insertions. The phenotype of the induced mutants is usually varied. Some mutants are conditional lethal mutants. These could differ from the wild type virus by being sensitive to high or low temperature. A low temperature mutant would for example grow at 88°F (31°C) but not at 100°F (38°C), while the wild type will grow at both temperatures. A mutant could also be obtained that grows better at elevated temperatures than the wild type virus. These mutants are called hot mutants and may be more dangerous for the host because fever, which usually slows the growth of wild type virus, is ineffective in controlling them. Other mutants that are usually generated are those that show drug resistance, enzyme deficiency or an altered pathogenicity or host range. Some of these mutants cause milder symptoms compared to the parental virulent virus and usually have potential in vaccine development as exemplified by some types of influenza vaccines.

Besides mutation, new genetic variants of viruses also arise through exchange of genetic material by recombination and reassortment. Classical recombination involves breaking of covalent bonds within the virus nucleic acid and exchange of some DNA segments followed by rejoining of the DNA break. This type of recombination is almost exclusively reserved to DNA viruses and retroviruses. RNA viruses that do not have a DNA phase rarely use this mechanism. Recombination usually enables a virus to pick up genetic material from similar viruses and even from unrelated viruses and the eukaryotic host cells. Exchange of genetic material with the host is especially common with retroviruses. Reassortment is a non-classical kind of recombination that occurs if two variants of a segmented virus infect the same cell. The resulting progeny virions may get some segments from one parent and some from the other. All known segmented viruses that infect humans are RNA viruses. The process of reassortment is very efficient in the exchange of genetic material and is used in the generation of viral vaccines especially in the case of influenza live vaccines. The ability of viruses to exchange genetic information through recombination is the basis for virus-based vectors in recombinant DNA technology and hold great promises in the development of gene therapy. Viruses are attractive as vectors in gene therapy because they can be targeted to specific tissues in the organs that the virus usually infect and because viruses do not need special chemical reagents called transfectants that are used to target a plasmid vector to the genome of the host.

Genetic variants generated through mutations, recombination or reassortment could interact with each other if they infected the same host cell and prevent the appearance of any phen of any phenotype. This phenomenon, where each mutant provides the missing function of the other while both are still genotypically mutant, is known as complementation. It is used as an efficient tool to determine if mutations are in a unique or in different genes and to reveal the minimum number of genes affecting a function. Temperature sensitive mutants that have the same mutation in the same gene will for example not be able to complement each other. It is important to distinguish complementation reactivation where a higher dose of inactivated mutants will be reactivated and infect a cell because these inactivated viruses cooperate in a poorly understood process. This reactivation probably involves both a complementation step that allows defective viruses to replicate and a recombination step resulting in new genotypes and sometimes regeneration of the wild type. The viruses that need complementation to achieve an infectious cycle are usually referred to as defective mutants and the complementing virus is the helper virus. In some cases, the defective virus may interfere with and reduce the infectivity of the helper virus by competing with it for some factors that are involved in the viral life cycle. These defective viruses called "defective interfering" are sometimes involved in modulating natural infections. Different wild type viruses that infect the same cell may exchange coat components without any exchange of genetic material. This phenomenon, known as phenotypic mixing is usually restricted to related viruses and may change both the morphology of the packaged virus and the tropism or tissue specificity of these infectious agents.



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Abdel Hakim Nasr

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