The Virus Zoo: A Quick Primer on Molecular Virology

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Adeno-associated virus (AAV)

Genome and Structure:

AAV genomes are about 4.7 kb in length and are composed of ssDNA. Inverted terminal repeats (ITRs) form hairpin structures at ends of the genome. These ITR structures are important for AAV genomic packaging and replication. Rep genes (encoded via overlapping reading frames) include Rep78, Rep68, Rep52, Rep40.1 These proteins facilitate replication of the viral genome. As a Dependoparvovirus, additional helper functions from adenovirus (or certain other viruses) are needed for AAVs to replicate.

AAV capsids are about 25 nm in diameter. Cap genes include VP1, VP2, VP3 and are transcribed from overlapping reading frames.2 The VP3 protein is the smallest capsid protein. The VP2 protein is the same as VP3 except that it includes an N-terminal extension with a nuclear localization sequence. The VP1 protein is the same as VP2 except that it includes a further N-terminal extension encoding a phospholipase A2 (PLA2) that facilitates endosomal escape during infection. In the AAV capsid, VP1, VP2, and VP3 are present at a ratio of roughly 1:1:10. It should be noted that this ratio is actually the average of a distribution, not a fixed number.

Frame-shifted start codons in the Cap gene region transcribe AAP (assembly activating protein) and MAAP (membrane associated accessory protein). These proteins help facilitate packaging and other aspects of the AAV life cycle.

Life cycle:

There are a variety of different AAV serotypes (AAV2, AAV6, AAV9, etc.) that selectively infect certain tissue types. AAVs bind to host cell receptors and are internalized by endocytosis. The particular receptors involved can vary depending on the AAV serotype, though some receptors are consistent across many serotypes. Internalization occurs most often via clathrin-coated pits, but some AAVs are internalized by other routes such as macropinocytosis or the CLIC/GEEC tubulovesicular pathway.3

After endocytosis, conformational changes in the AAV capsid lead to exposure of the PLA2 VP1 domain, which facilitates endosomal escape. The AAV is then transported to the nucleus mainly by motor proteins on cytoskeletal highways. It enters via nuclear pores and finishes uncoating its genome.

AAV genomes initiate replication using the ends of their ITR hairpins as primers. This leads to a series of complex steps involving strand displacement and nicking.1 In the end, new copies of the AAV genome are synthesized. The Rep proteins are key players in this process. It is important to realize that AAVs can only replicate in cells which have also been infected by adenovirus or similar helper viruses (this is why they are called “adeno-associated viruses”). Adenoviruses provide helper genes encoding proteins (e.g. E4, E2a, VA) that are vital for the successful completion of the AAV life cycle. After new AAV capsids have assembled from VP1, VP2, and VP3 and once AAV genomes have been replicated, the ssDNA genomes are threaded into the capsids via pores at their five-fold vertices.

AAVs are nonpathogenic, though a large fraction of people possess antibodies against at least some serotypes, so exposure to them is fairly common.


Genome and Structure:

Adenovirus genomes are about 36 kb in size and are composed of linear dsDNA. They possess inverted terminal repeats (ITRs) which help facilitate replication and other functions. These genomes contain a variety of transcriptional units which are expressed at different times during the virus’s life cycle.4 E1A, E1B, E2A, E2B, E3, and E4 transcriptional units are expressed early during cellular infection. Their proteins are involved in DNA replication, transcriptional regulation, and suppression of host immune responses. The L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5 transcriptional units are expressed later in the life cycle. Their products include most of the capsid proteins as well as other proteins involved in packaging and assembly. Each transcriptional unit can produce multiple mRNAs through the host’s alternative splicing machinery.

The capsid of the adenovirus is about 90 nm in diameter and consists of three major proteins (hexon, penton, and fiber proteins) as well as a variety of minor proteins and core proteins. Hexon trimer is the most abundant protein in the capsid, the pentameric pentons occur at the vertices, and trimeric fibers are positioned on top of the pentons.5 The fibers point outwards from the capsid and end in knob domains which bind to cellular receptors. In Ad5, a commonly studied type of adenovirus, the fiber knob primarily binds to the coxsackievirus and adenovirus receptor (CAR). That said, it should be noted that Ad5’s fiber knob can also bind to alternative receptors such as vascular cell adhesion molecule 1 and heparan sulfate proteoglycans.

Minor capsid proteins include pIX, pIIIa, pVI, and pVIII. The pIX protein interlaces between hexons and helps stabilize the capsid. Though pIX is positioned in the crevices between the hexons, it is still exposed to the outside environment. By contrast, the pIIIa, pVI, and pVIII proteins bind to the inside of the capsid and contribute further structural stabilization. When the adenovirus is inside of the acidic endosome during infection, conformational changes in the capsid release the pVI protein, which facilitates endosomal escape through membrane lytic activity.

Adenovirus core proteins include pV, pVII, protein μ (also known as pX), adenovirus proteinase (AVP), pIVa2, and terminal protein (TP).6 The pVII protein has many positively-charged arginine residues and so functions to condense the viral DNA. The pV protein bridges the core with the capsid through interactions with pVII and with pVI. AVP cleaves various adenoviral proteins (pIIIa, TP, pVI, pVII, pVIII, pX) to convert them to their mature forms.7 The pIVa2 and pX proteins interact with the viral DNA and may play roles in packaging or replication. TP binds to the ends of the genome and is essential for localizing the viral DNA in the nucleus and for viral replication.

Life Cycle:

Adenovirus infects cells by binding its fiber knob to cellular receptors such as CAR (in the case of Ad5). The penton then binds certain αv integrins, positioning the viral capsid for endocytosis.8 When the endosome acidifies, the adenovirus capsid partially disassembles, fibers and pentons fall away, and pVI is released.9 The pVI protein’s membrane lytic activity facilitates endosomal escape. Partially disassembled capsids then undergo dynein-mediated transport along microtubules and dock at the entrance to nuclear pores. The capsids further disassemble and releases DNA through the nuclear pore. This DNA remains complexed with pVII after it enters the nucleus.

Adenoviral transcription is initiated by the E1A protein, inducing expression of early genes.10 This subsequently leads to expression of the E2, E3, and E4 transcriptional units, which help the virus escape immune responses. This cascade leads to expression of the L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5 transcriptional units, which mainly synthesize viral structural proteins and facilitate capsid assembly.

In the nucleus, adenovirus genomes replicate within dense complexes of protein that can be seen as spots via fluorescence microscopy. Replication begins at the ITRs and is primed by TP.11 Several more viral proteins and host proteins also aid the initiation of replication. Nontemplate strands are displaced during replication but may reanneal and act as template strands later. Adenovirus DNA binding protein and adenovirus DNA polymerase play important roles in replication. Once the genome has been replicated, TP undergoes cleavage into its mature form, signaling for packaging of new genomes.

The adenoviral capsid assembly and maturation process occurs in the nucleus.10 Once enough assembled adenoviruses have accumulated, they rupture the nuclear membrane using adenoviral death protein and subsequently lyse the cell, releasing adenoviral particles.

Herpes Simplex Virus 1 (HSV-1)

Genome and Structure:

HSV-1 genomes are about 150 kb in size and are composed of linear dsDNA. These genomes include a unique long (UL) region and a unique short (US) region.12 The UL and US regions are both flanked by their own inverted repeats. The terminal inverted repeats are called TRL and TRS while the internal inverted repeats are called IRL and IRS. HSV-1 contains approximately 80 genes, though the complexity of its genomic organization makes an exact number of genes difficult to obtain. As with many other viruses, HSV-1 genomes encode early, middle, and late genes. The early genes activate and regulate transcription of the middle and late genes. Middle genes facilitate genome replication and late genes mostly encode structural proteins.

The diameter of HSV-1 ranges around 155 nm to 240 nm.13 Its virions include an inner icosahedral capsid (with a 125 nm diameter) surrounded by tegument proteins which are in turn enveloped by a lipid membrane containing glycoproteins.

HSV-1’s icosahedral capsid consists of a variety of proteins. Some of the most important capsid proteins are encoded by the UL19, UL18, UL38, UL6, UL17, and UL25 genes.14 The UL19 gene encodes the major capsid protein VP5, which forms pentamers and hexamers for the capsid. These VP5 pentamers and hexamers are glued together by triplexes consisting of two copies of VP23 (encoded by UL18) and one copy of VP19C (encoded by UL38).15 The UL6 gene encodes the protein that makes up the portal complex, a structure used by HSV-1 to release its DNA during infection. Each HSV-1 capsid has a single portal (composed of 12 copies of the portal protein) located at one of the vertices. UL17 and UL25 encode additional structural proteins that stabilize the capsid by binding on top of the other vertices. These two proteins also serve as a bridge between the capsid core and the tegument proteins.

The tegument of HSV-1 contains dozens of distinct proteins. Some examples include pUL36, pUL37, pUL7, and pUL51 proteins. The major tegument proteins are pUL36 and pUL37. The pUL36 protein binds on top of the UL17-UL25 complexes at the capsid’s vertices.16 The pUL37 protein subsequently associates with pUL36. The pUL51 protein associates with cytoplasmic membranes in infected cells and recruits the pUL7 protein.17 This pUL51-pUL7 interaction is important for HSV-1 assembly. HSV-1 has many more tegument proteins which play various functional roles.

HSV-1’s envelope contains up to 16 unique glycoproteins. Four of these glycoproteins (gB, gD, gH, and gL) are essential for viral entry into cells.18 The gD glycoprotein first binds to one of its cellular receptors (nectin-1, herpesvirus entry mediator or HVEM, or 3-O-sulfated heparan sulfate). This binding event triggers a conformational change in gD that allows it to activate the gH/gL heterodimer. Next, gH/gL activate gB which induces fusion of HSV-1’s envelope with the cell membrane. Though the remaining 12 envelope glycoproteins are poorly understood, it is thought that they also play roles that influence cellular tropism and entry.

Life cycle:

After binding to cellular receptors via its glycoproteins, HSV-1 induces fusion of its envelope with the host cell membrane.19 The capsid is trafficked to nuclear pores via microtubules. Since the capsid is too large to pass through a nuclear pore directly, the virus instead ejects its DNA through the pore via the portal complex.20

HSV-1 replicates its genome and assembles its capsids in the nucleus. But the assembled capsids are again too large to exist the nucleus through nuclear pores. To overcome this issue, HSV-1 first buds via the inner nuclear membrane into the perinuclear cleft (the space between nuclear membranes), acquiring a primary envelope.19 This process is driven by a pair of proteins (pUL34 and pUL31) which together form the nuclear egress complex. Next, the primary envelope fuses with the outer nuclear membrane, releasing the assembled capsids into the cytosol.

To acquire its final envelope, the HSV-1 capsid likely buds into the trans-Golgi network or into certain tubular vesicular organelles.21 These membrane sources contain the envelope proteins of the virus as produced by transcription and various secretory pathways. One player is the pUL51 tegument protein that starts associated with the membrane into which the virus buds. The interaction between pUL51 and pUL7 helps facilitate recruitment of the capsid to the membrane. (Capsid envelopment is also coupled in many other ways to formation of the outer tegument). The enveloped virion eventually undergoes trafficking through the secretory system and eventually is packaged into exosomes that fuse with the cell membrane and release completed virions into the extracellular environment.

In humans, HSV-1 infects the epithelial cells first and produces viral particles.22 It subsequently enters the termini of sensory neurons, undergoes retrograde transport into the brain, and remains in the central nervous system in a dormant state. During periods of stress in the host, the virus is reactivated and undergoes anterograde transport to infect epithelial cells once again.


1.        Sha, S. et al. Cellular pathways of recombinant adeno-associated virus production for gene therapy. Biotechnol. Adv. 49, 107764 (2021).

2.        Wang, D., Tai, P. W. L. & Gao, G. Adeno-associated virus vector as a platform for gene therapy delivery. Nat. Rev. Drug Discov. 18, 358–378 (2019).

3.        Riyad, J. M. & Weber, T. Intracellular trafficking of adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors: challenges and future directions. Gene Ther. 28, 683–696 (2021).

4.        Ahi, Y. S. & Mittal, S. K. Components of Adenovirus Genome Packaging. Frontiers in Microbiology vol. 7 1503 at (2016).

5.        Gallardo, J., Pérez-Illana, M., Martín-González, N. & San Martín, C. Adenovirus Structure: What Is New? International Journal of Molecular Sciences  vol. 22 at (2021).

6.        Kulanayake, S. & Tikoo, S. K. Adenovirus Core Proteins: Structure and Function. Viruses  vol. 13 at (2021).

7.        Russell, W. C. & Kemp, G. D. Role of Adenovirus Structural Components in the Regulation of Adenovirus Infection BT  – The Molecular Repertoire of Adenoviruses I: Virion Structure and Infection. in (eds. Doerfler, W. & Böhm, P.) 81–98 (Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 1995). doi:10.1007/978-3-642-79496-4_6.

8.        R., N. G. & L., S. P. Role of αv Integrins in Adenovirus Cell Entry and Gene Delivery. Microbiol. Mol. Biol. Rev. 63, 725–734 (1999).

9.        Pied, N. & Wodrich, H. Imaging the adenovirus infection cycle. FEBS Lett. 593, 3419–3448 (2019).

10.      Georgi, F. & Greber, U. F. The Adenovirus Death Protein – a small membrane protein controls cell lysis and disease. FEBS Lett. 594, 1861–1878 (2020).

11.      Hoeben, R. C. & Uil, T. G. Adenovirus DNA Replication. Cold Spring Harb. Perspect. Biol.  5, (2013).

12.      McGeoch, D. J., Rixon, F. J. & Davison, A. J. Topics in herpesvirus genomics and evolution. Virus Res. 117, 90–104 (2006).

13.      Laine, R. F. et al. Structural analysis of herpes simplex virus by optical super-resolution imaging. Nat. Commun. 6, 5980 (2015).

14.      Mettenleiter, T. C., Klupp, B. G. & Granzow, H. Herpesvirus assembly: a tale of two membranes. Curr. Opin. Microbiol. 9, 423–429 (2006).

15.      E., H. E. Up close with herpesviruses. Science (80-. ). 360, 34–35 (2018).

16.      H., F. W. et al. The Large Tegument Protein pUL36 Is Essential for Formation of the Capsid Vertex-Specific Component at the Capsid-Tegument Interface of Herpes Simplex Virus 1. J. Virol. 89, 1502–1511 (2015).

17.      J., R. R., Rachel, F. & M., L. R. The Herpes Simplex Virus 1 UL51 Protein Interacts with the UL7 Protein and Plays a Role in Its Recruitment into the Virion. J. Virol. 89, 3112–3122 (2015).

18.      T., H. A., E., D. R., E., H. E. & Thomas, S. Contributions of the Four Essential Entry Glycoproteins to HSV-1 Tropism and the Selection of Entry Routes. MBio 12, e00143-21 (2021).

19.      Zeev-Ben-Mordehai, T., Hagen, C. & Grünewald, K. A cool hybrid approach to the herpesvirus ‘life’ cycle. Curr. Opin. Virol. 5, 42–49 (2014).

20.      Newcomb, W. W., Cockrell, S. K., Homa, F. L. & Brown, J. C. Polarized DNA Ejection from the Herpesvirus Capsid. J. Mol. Biol. 392, 885–894 (2009).

21.      Ahmad, I. & Wilson, D. W. HSV-1 Cytoplasmic Envelopment and Egress. International Journal of Molecular Sciences  vol. 21 at (2020).

22.      Roizman, B. & Whitley, R. J. An Inquiry into the Molecular Basis of HSV Latency and Reactivation. Annu. Rev. Microbiol. 67, 355–374 (2013).


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