HIV is a member of the genus Lentivirus, part of the family Retroviridae. Lentiviruses have many morphologies and biological properties in common. Many species are infected by lentiviruses, which are characteristically responsible for long-duration illnesses with a long incubation period. Lentiviruses are transmitted as single-stranded, positive-sense, enveloped RNA viruses. Upon entry into the target cell, the viral RNA genome is converted (reverse transcribed) into double-stranded DNA by a virally encoded enzyme, reverse transcriptase, that is transported along with the viral genome in the virus particle. The resulting viral DNA is then imported into the cell nucleus and integrated into the cellular DNA by a virally encoded enzyme, integrase, and host co-factors. Once integrated, the virus may become latent, allowing the virus and its host cell to avoid detection by the immune system, for an indiscriminate amount of time. The HIV virus can remain dormant in the human body for up to ten years after primary infection; during this period the virus does not cause symptoms. Alternatively, the integrated viral DNA may be transcribed, producing new RNA genomes and viral proteins, using host cell resources, that are packaged and released from the cell as new virus particles that will begin the replication cycle anew.

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