hiv outside the host

Question

Dr. Bob, We have all read that hiv does not survive well outside the body, but what exactly happens to it when it leaves the host? Does the cell wall collapse, or do the glycoproteins get degraded, or does the capsid "burst", or etc..? Have scientists observed this under a microscope? I cannot find a good biological explanation or a study explaning or demonstrating this...I just keep encountering the garden variety, cdc explanation, "hiv is not airborne, it is extremely fragile, environmental transmission is remote"...but nothing describing the actual biology of the breakdown. Thanks Dr. Bob!

PS...I have been writing to the Obama campaign telling them to stress the importance of funding medical research and stem cell therapy in the debates...this was a sleeper issue in 2004 that could have helped Kerry beat Bush if it was just emphasized more...I find it so ironic that Bush can justify thousands of troops dying "for the long term well being of our planet" (whatever that means), but has an ethical problem with extracting stem cells from a microscopic dot that may be the key in curing/treating so many diseases (including hiv)...thanks again.

Answer

Hi,

HIV is an extremely tiny piece of genetic material that gets integrated into the genetic material of host cells (CD4 cells, for example). HIV does not survive without viable host cells. Hence, when HIV and/or HIV-infected cells are outside of the body, they cannot survive. As for what happens to capsids, glycoproteins and genetic strands, etc. that depends on what stage of the lifecycle the virus happens to be in. (Some virus is getting ready to attach itself to susceptible CD4 cells, while other virus may already have been transcribed from RNA to DNA and incorporated into the genetic material of the host cell, etc.) The microscopic details really aren't all that important. Dead is dead, right?

Don't even try to understand Dubya's logic. He doesn't have any. And remember, the dude is anti-science, anti-intellectual and anti-common sense. There is absolutely no doubt that "W" stands for "Worst" President Ever!

Dr. Bob