RNA tumor viruses as classified in Retroviruses have been isolated and identified to induce tumors in a variety of animals including chickens, mice, and rats, or even in human in the last 100 years, since the first one has been reported in 1908. The RNA tumor viruses have been historically classified into two groups, acute transforming RNA tumor viruses and nonacute RNA tumor viruses. Acute transforming RNA tumor viruses are basically replication-defective and rapidly induce tumors by expressing the viral oncogenes captured from cellular genome in host cells. The first oncogene derived from Rous sarcoma virus was the src non-receptor tyrosine kinase, which has been identified to play the significant roles for signal transduction. On the other hand, nonacute RNA tumor viruses, which consist of only gag, pro, pol, and env regions but do not carry oncogenes, are replication-competent and could activate the cellular proto-oncogenes by inserting the viral long terminal repeat close to the proto-oncogenes to induce tumors with a long incubation period, as is termed a promoter insertion. These molecular mechanisms have been thought to induce tumors. However, very recently several reports have described that the retroviral structural protein Envelope could directly induce tumors in vivo and transform cells in vitro. These are very unusual examples of native retroviral structural proteins with transformation potential. In this review we look back over the history of oncogenic retrovirus research and summarize recent progress for our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of oncogenic transformation by retrovirus Envelope proteins.
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