Molecular genetics and target site specificity of retroviral integration

Adv Genet. 2001;43:33-69. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2660(01)43003-3.


Integration is an essential step in the life cycle of retroviruses, resulting in the stable joining of the viral cDNA to the host cell chromosomes. While this critical process makes retroviruses an attractive vector for gene delivery, it also presents a potential hazard. The sites where integration occurs are nonspecific. Therefore,it is possible that integration of retroviral DNA will affect host gene expression and disrupt normal cellular functions. The mechanism by which integration sites are chosen is not well understood, and is influenced by several factors, including DNA sequence and structure, DNA-binding proteins, DNA methylation, and transcription. Integrase, the viral enzyme responsible for catalyzing integration, also plays a key role in controlling the choice of target sites. The integrase domain responsible for target site selection has been mapped to the central core region. A better understanding of the interaction between the target-specifying motif of integrase and the target DNA may allow a means to manipulate integration into particular chromosomal sites. Another approach to directing integration is to fuse integrase with a sequence-specific DNA-binding protein, which results in a bias of integration in vitro into the recognition site of the fusion partner. Successful incorporation of the fusion protein into infectious virions and the identification of optimal proteins that can be fused to integrase will advance the development of site-specific vectors. Retroviruses are promising for the delivery of genes in experimental and therapeutic protocols. A better understanding of integration will aid in the design of safer and more effective gene transfer vectors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Viral / genetics
  • DNA, Viral / physiology
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Genetic Vectors
  • Integrases / genetics
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / metabolism
  • Retroviridae / genetics*
  • Virus Integration*


  • DNA, Viral
  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins
  • Integrases