Retroviruses have evolved multiple strategies to direct the synthesis of a complex proteome from a single primary transcript. Their mechanisms are modulated by a breadth of virus-host interactions, which are of significant fundamental interest because they ultimately affect the efficiency of virus replication and disease pathogenesis. Motifs located within the untranslated region (UTR) of the retroviral RNA have established roles in transcriptional trans-activation, RNA packaging, and genome reverse transcription; and a growing literature has revealed a necessary role of the UTR in modulating the efficiency of viral protein synthesis. Examples include a 5′ UTR post-transcriptional control element (PCE), present in at least eight retroviruses, that interacts with cellular RNA helicase A to facilitate cap-dependent polyribosome association; and 3′ UTR constitutive transport element (CTE) of Mason-Pfizer monkey virus that interacts with Tap/NXF1 and SR protein 9G8 to facilitate RNA export and translational utilization. By contrast, nuclear protein hnRNP E1 negatively modulates HIV-1 Gag, Env, and Rev protein synthesis. Alternative initiation strategies by ribosomal frameshifting and leaky scanning enable polycistronic translation of the cap-dependent viral transcript. Other studies posit cap-independent translation initiation by internal ribosome entry at structural features of the 5′ UTR of selected retroviruses. The retroviral armamentarium also commands mechanisms to counter cellular post-transcriptional innate defenses, including protein kinase R, 2′,5′-oligoadenylate synthetase and the small RNA pathway. This review will discuss recent and historically-recognized insights into retrovirus translational control. The expanding knowledge of retroviral post-transcriptional control is vital to understanding the biology of the retroviral proteome. In a broad perspective, each new insight offers a prospective target for antiviral therapy and strategic improvement of gene transfer vectors.
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