As they assemble, retroviruses encapsidate both their genomic RNAs and several types of host RNA. Whereas limited amounts of messenger RNA (mRNA) are detectable within virion populations, the predominant classes of encapsidated host RNAs do not encode proteins, but instead include endogenous retroelements and several classes of non-coding RNA (ncRNA), some of which are packaged in significant molar excess to the viral genome. Surprisingly, although the most abundant host RNAs in retroviruses are also abundant in cells, unusual forms of these RNAs are packaged preferentially, suggesting that these RNAs are recruited early in their biogenesis: before associating with their cognate protein partners, and/or from transient or rare RNA populations. These RNAs’ packaging determinants differ from the viral genome’s, and several of the abundantly packaged host ncRNAs serve cells as the scaffolds of ribonucleoprotein particles. Because virion assembly is equally efficient whether or not genomic RNA is available, yet RNA appears critical to the structural integrity of retroviral particles, it seems possible that the selectively encapsidated host ncRNAs might play roles in assembly. Indeed, some host ncRNAs appear to act during replication, as some transfer RNA (tRNA) species may contribute to nuclear import of human immunodeficiency virus 1 (HIV-1) reverse transcription complexes, and other tRNA interactions with the viral Gag protein aid correct trafficking to plasma membrane assembly sites. However, despite high conservation of packaging for certain host RNAs, replication roles for most of these selectively encapsidated RNAs—if any—have remained elusive.
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