HIV enters macrophages and CD4+ T cells by the adsorption of glycoproteins on its surface to receptors on the target cell followed by fusion of the viral envelope with the cell membrane and the release of the HIV capsid into the cell.
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Entry to the cell begins through interaction of the trimeric envelope complex (gp160 spike) and both CD4 and a chemokine receptor (generally either CCR5 or CXCR4, but others are known to interact) on the cell surface. gp120 binds to integrin α4β7 activating LFA-1 the central integrin involved in the establishment of virological synapses, which facilitate efficient cell-to-cell spreading of HIV-1. The gp160 spike contains binding domains for both CD4 and chemokine receptors. The first step in fusion involves the high-affinity attachment of the CD4 binding domains of gp120 to CD4. Once gp120 is bound with the CD4 protein, the envelope complex undergoes a structural change, exposing the chemokine binding domains of gp120 and allowing them to interact with the target chemokine receptor. This allows for a more stable two-pronged attachment, which allows the N-terminal fusion peptide gp41 to penetrate the cell membrane. Repeat sequences in gp41, HR1 and HR2 then interact, causing the collapse of the extracellular portion of gp41 into a hairpin. This loop structure brings the virus and cell membranes close together, allowing fusion of the membranes and subsequent entry of the viral capsid.
Once HIV has bound to the target cell, the HIV RNA and various enzymes, including reverse transcriptase, integrase, ribonuclease and protease, are injected into the cell. During the microtubule based transport to the nucleus, the viral single strand RNA genome is transcribed into double strand DNA, which is then integrated into a host chromosome.
HIV can infect dendritic cells (DCs) by this CD4-CCR5 route, but another route using mannose-specific C-type lectin receptors such as DC-SIGN can also be used.DCs are one of the first cells encountered by the virus during sexual transmission. They are currently thought to play an important role by transmitting HIV to T cells once the virus has been captured in the mucosa by DCs.