The Journal of biological chemistry 2017 04 26() pii 10.1074/jbc.M117.788919
The gp120 subunit of HIV-1 envelope (Env) protein is heavily glycosylated at approximately 25 glycosylation sites, of which ~7-8 are located in the V1/V2 and V3 variable loops and the others in the remaining core gp120 region. Glycans partially shield Env from recognition by the host immune system and also are believed to be indispensable for proper folding of gp120 and for viral infectivity. Previous attempts to alter glycosylation sites in Env typically involved mutating the glycosylated asparagine residues to structurally similar glutamines or to alanines. Here, we confirmed that such mutations at multiple glycosylation sites greatly diminish viral infectivity and result in significantly reduced binding to both neutralizing and non-neutralizing antibodies. Therefore, using an alternative approach, we combined evolutionary information with structure-guided design and yeast surface display to produce properly cleaved HIV-1 Env variants that lack all 15 core gp120 glycans, yet retain conformational integrity and multiple-cycle viral infectivity and bind to several broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs), including trimer-specific antibodies and a germline-reverted version of the bNAb VRC01. Our observations demonstrate that core gp120 glycans are not essential for folding, and hence their likely primary role is enabling immune evasion. We also show that our glycan removal approach is not strain restricted. Glycan-deficient Env derivatives can be used as priming immunogens since they should engage and activate a more divergent set of germlines than fully glycosylated Env. In conclusion, these results clarify the role of core gp120 glycosylation and illustrate a general method for designing glycan-free, folded protein derivatives.