Journal of virology 2017 08 1091(17) pii 10.1128/JVI.00518-17
In the large majority of cases, HIV infection is established by a single variant, and understanding the characteristics of successfully transmitted variants is relevant to prevention strategies. Few studies have investigated the viral determinants of mother-to-child transmission. To determine the impact of Gag-protease-driven viral replication capacity on mother-to-child transmission, the replication capacities of 148 recombinant viruses encoding plasma-derived Gag-protease from 53 nontransmitter mothers, 48 transmitter mothers, and 47 infected infants were assayed in an HIV-1-inducible green fluorescent protein reporter cell line. All study participants were infected with HIV-1 subtype C. There was no significant difference in replication capacities between the nontransmitter (n = 53) and transmitter (n = 44) mothers (P = 0.48). Infant-derived Gag-protease NL4-3 recombinant viruses (n = 41) were found to have a significantly lower Gag-protease-driven replication capacity than that of viruses derived from the mothers (P < 0.0001 by a paired t test). High percent similarities to consensus subtype C Gag, p17, p24, and protease sequences were also found in the infants (n = 28) in comparison to their mothers (P = 0.07, P = 0.002, P = 0.03, and P = 0.02, respectively, as determined by a paired t test). These data suggest that of the viral quasispecies found in mothers, the HIV mother-to-child transmission bottleneck favors the transmission of consensus-like viruses with lower viral replication capacities.IMPORTANCE Understanding the characteristics of successfully transmitted HIV variants has important implications for preventative interventions. Little is known about the viral determinants of HIV mother-to-child transmission (MTCT). We addressed the role of viral replication capacity driven by Gag, a major structural protein that is a significant determinant of overall viral replicative ability and an important target of the host immune response, in the MTCT bottleneck. This study advances our understanding of the genetic bottleneck in MTCT by revealing that viruses transmitted to infants have a lower replicative ability as well as a higher similarity to the population consensus (in this case HIV subtype C) than those of their mothers. Furthermore, the observation that "consensus-like" virus sequences correspond to lower in vitro replication abilities yet appear to be preferentially transmitted suggests that viral characteristics favoring transmission are decoupled from those that enhance replicative capacity.