Journal of virology 2017 04 19() pii 10.1128/JVI.00253-17
There are marked differences in the spread and prevalence of HIV-1 subtypes worldwide, and differences in clinical progression have been reported. However, the biological reasons underlying these differences are unknown. Gag-protease is essential for HIV-1 replication and Gag-protease-driven replication capacity has previously been correlated with disease progression. We show that Gag-protease replication capacity correlates significantly with that of whole isolates (r=0.51; p=0.04), indicating that Gag-protease is a significant contributor to viral replication capacity. Furthermore, we investigated subtype-specific differences in Gag-protease-driven replication capacity using large well-characterised cohorts in Africa and the Americas. Patient-derived Gag-protease sequences were inserted into an HIV-1 NL4-3 backbone and the replication capacities of the resulting recombinant viruses were measured in an HIV-1-inducible reporter T cell line by flow cytometry. Recombinant viruses expressing subtype C Gag-proteases exhibited substantially lower replication capacities than those expressing subtype B Gag-proteases (p<0.0001); this observation remained consistent when representative Gag-protease sequences were engineered into an HIV-1 subtype C backbone. We identified Gag residues 483 and 484, located within the Alix-binding motif involved in virus budding, as a major contributors to subtype-specific replicative differences. In East African cohorts, we observed a hierarchy of Gag-protease-driven replication capacities: subtypes A/C < D < inter-subtype recombinants (p<0.0029), which is consistent with reported inter-subtype differences in disease progression. We thus hypothesise that the lower Gag-protease-driven replication capacity of subtypes A and C slows disease progression in individuals infected with these subtypes, which in turn leads to greater opportunity for transmission and thus increased prevalence of these subtypes.IMPORTANCE HIV-1 subtypes are unevenly distributed globally and there are reported differences in rates of disease progression and epidemic spread. The biological determinants underlying these differences have not been fully elucidated. Here, we show that HIV-1 Gag-protease-driven replication capacity correlates with the replication capacity of whole virus isolates. We further show that subtype B displays significantly higher Gag-protease-mediated replication capacity compared to subtype C, and we identify a major genetic determinant of these differences. Moreover, in two independent East African cohorts we demonstrate a reproducible hierarchy of Gag-protease-driven replicative capacity where recombinants exhibit the greatest replication, followed by subtype D, followed by subtype A and C. Our data identify Gag-protease as a major determinant of subtype differences in disease progression among HIV-1 subtypes; furthermore we propose that the poorer viral replicative capacity of subtypes A and C may paradoxically contribute to their more efficient spread in Sub-Saharan Africa.