Viruses often deviate from their hosts in the nucleotide composition of their genomes. The RNA genome of the lentivirus family of retroviruses, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), contains e.g. an above average percentage of adenine (A) nucleotides, while being extremely poor in cytosine (C). Such a deviant base composition has implications for the amino acids that are encoded by the open reading frames (ORFs), both in the requirement of specific tRNA species and in the preference for amino acids encoded by e.g. A-rich codons. Nucleotide composition does obviously affect the secondary and tertiary structure of the RNA genome and its biological functions, but it does also influence phylogenetic analysis of viral genome sequences, and possibly the activity of the integrated DNA provirus. Over time, the nucleotide composition of the HIV-1 genome is exceptionally conserved, varying by less than 1% per base position per isolate within either group M, N, or O during 1983-2009. This extreme stability of the nucleotide composition may possibly be achieved by negative selection, perhaps conserving semi-stable RNA secondary structure as reverse transcription would be significantly affected for a less A-rich genome where secondary structures are expected to be more stable and thus more difficult to unfold.This review will discuss all aspects of the lentiviral genome composition, both of the RNA and of its derived double-stranded DNA genome, with a focus on HIV-1, the nucleotide composition over time, the effects of artificially humanized codons as well as contributions of immune system pressure on HIV nucleotide bias.
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