The Discovery of Reverse Transcriptase

Annu Rev Virol. 2016 Sep 29;3(1):29-51. doi: 10.1146/annurev-virology-110615-035556. Epub 2016 Jul 22.


In 1970 the independent and simultaneous discovery of reverse transcriptase in retroviruses (then RNA tumor viruses) by David Baltimore and Howard Temin revolutionized molecular biology and laid the foundations for retrovirology and cancer biology. In this historical review we describe the formulation of the controversial provirus hypothesis by Temin, which ultimately was proven by his discovery of reverse transcriptase in Rous sarcoma virus virions. Baltimore arrived at the same discovery through his studies on replication of RNA-containing viruses, starting with poliovirus and then moving to vesicular stomatitis virus, where he discovered a virion RNA polymerase. Subsequent studies of reverse transcriptase led to the elucidation of the mechanism of retrovirus replication, the discovery of oncogenes, the advent of molecular cloning, the search for human cancer viruses, and the discovery and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Keywords: David Baltimore; HIV; Howard Temin; RNA tumor virus; Rous sarcoma virus; murine leukemia virus; retrovirus.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Oncogenes / genetics
  • RNA, Viral / genetics*
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase / metabolism*
  • Retroviridae / classification
  • Retroviridae / genetics*
  • Retroviridae / physiology
  • Virus Replication / genetics*


  • RNA, Viral
  • RNA-Directed DNA Polymerase