The virus itself stores its nucleic acid, in the form of a +mRNA (including the 5'cap and 3'PolyA inside the virion) genome and serves as a means of delivery of that genome into cells it targets as an obligate parasite, and constitutes the infection. Once in the host's cell, the RNA strands undergo reverse transcription in the cytosol and are integrated into the host's genome, at which point the retroviral DNA is referred to as a provirus.
When retroviruses have integrated their own genome into the germ line, their genome is passed on to a following generation. These endogenous retroviruses, contrasted with exogenous ones, now make up 5-8% of the human genome. Most insertions have no known function and are often referred to as "junk DNA". However, many endogenous retroviruses play important roles in host biology, such as control of gene transcription, cell fusion during placental development in the course of the germination of an embryo, and resistance to exogenous retroviral infection. Endogenous retroviruses have also received special attention in the research of immunology-related pathologies, such as autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, although endogenous retroviruses have not yet been proven to play any causal role in this class of disease. The role of endogenous retroviruses in human gene evolution is explored in a 2005 peer-reviewed article.
While transcription was classically thought to only occur from DNA to RNA, reverse transcriptase transcribes RNA into DNA. The term "retro" in retrovirus refers to this reversal (making DNA from RNA) of the central dogma of molecular biology. Reverse transcriptase activity outside of retroviruses has been found in almost all eukaryotes, enabling the generation and insertion of new copies of retrotransposons into the host genome. It is important to note that a retrovirus must "bring" its own reverse transcriptase in its capsid, otherwise it is unable to utilize the infected cell's enzymes to carry out the task, due to the unusual nature of producing DNA from RNA.
Because reverse transcription lacks the usual proofreading of DNA replication, this kind of virus mutates very often. This enables the virus to grow resistant to antiviral pharmaceuticals quickly, and impedes the development of effective vaccines and inhibitors for the retrovirus.
These were previously divided into three subfamilies (Oncovirinae, Lentivirinae, and Spumavirinae), but with current knowledge of retroviruses, this is no longer appropriate. (The term oncovirus is still commonly used, though.)