A cell clone persistently infected with human T cell-lymphotrophic virus type IIIB (H3B cells) contained mainly the multiply spliced (2 kb) and singly spliced (4.3 kb) species of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) RNA. When H3B cells were co-cultured with susceptible HUT78 cells, cell fusion occurred within 4 h of cell mixing and was accompanied by a marked increase of the unspliced full-length (9.2 kb) HIV RNA. This first phase of viral RNA induction (4 to 12 h post-infection) was followed by a second phase of viral RNA synthesis from 24 h p.i. in which there were significant increases in all three species of HIV RNA. Reverse transcriptase (RT) inhibitors such as azidothymidine (AZT) at concentrations that abolished HIV DNA synthesis, abolished the first phase but not the second phase of viral RNA synthesis in our model system. A comparable one-step cell-free virus infection showed a pattern of viral RNA synthesis similar to that of the cell-to-cell transmission of infection. However, viral RNA synthesis following cell-free virus infection was totally inhibited by RT inhibitors. The early phase (4 to 12 h) expression of 9.2 kb HIV RNA is likely to use newly synthesized HIV DNA as template; during this phase, HIV RNA and DNA syntheses occur simultaneously, with each process being dependent on the other for maximal yield. During the later (24 to 48 h) phase, all three HIV RNA species may be transcribed at least in part from proviral DNA from the original donor cells. This later phase may privide one of the mechanisms for natural spread of virus to new cells and for enhanced viral gene expression , despite the presence of AZT.


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