Molecular basis of fidelity of DNA synthesis and nucleotide specificity of retroviral reverse transcriptases

Prog Nucleic Acid Res Mol Biol. 2002;71:91-147. doi: 10.1016/s0079-6603(02)71042-8.


Reverse transcription involves the conversion of viral genomic RNAinto proviral double-stranded DNA that integrates into the host cell genome. Cellular DNA polymerases replicate the integrated viral DNA and RNA polymerase II transcribes the proviral DNA into RNA genomes that are packaged into virions. Although mutations can be introduced at any of these replication steps, reverse transcriptase (RT) errors play a major role in retroviral mutation. This review summarizes our current knowledge on fidelity of reverse transcriptases. Estimates of retroviral mutation rates or fidelity of retroviral RTs are discussed in the context of the different techniques used for this purpose (i.e., retroviral vectors replicated in culture, misinsertion and mispair extension fidelity assay, etc.). In vitro fidelity assays provide information on the RT's accuracy during the elongation reaction of DNA synthesis. In addition, other steps such as initiation of reverse transcription, or strand transfer, and factors including viral proteins such as Vpr [in the case of the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1)] have been shown to influence fidelity. A comprehensive description of the effect of amino acid substitutions on the fidelity of HIV-1 RT is presented. Published data point to certain dNTP-binding residues, as well as to various amino acids involved in interactions with the template or the primer strand, and to residues in the minor groove-binding track as major components of the fidelity center of retroviral RTs. Implications of these studies include the design of novel therapeutic strategies leading to virus extinction, by increasing the viral mutation rate beyond a tolerable threshold.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • DNA, Viral / biosynthesis*
  • HIV Reverse Transcriptase / chemistry
  • HIV Reverse Transcriptase / genetics
  • HIV Reverse Transcriptase / metabolism
  • HIV-1 / genetics
  • HIV-1 / metabolism
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutation
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase / genetics
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase / metabolism*
  • Recombination, Genetic
  • Retroviridae / genetics
  • Retroviridae / metabolism*
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Substrate Specificity


  • DNA, Viral
  • HIV Reverse Transcriptase
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase