HIV-1 gag expression is quantitatively dependent on the ratio of native and optimized codons

Tsitologiia. 2003;45(1):86-93.


There is a significant variation of codon usage bias among different species and even among genes within the same organisms. Codon optimization, this is, gene redesigning with the use of codons preferred for the specific expression system, results in improved expression of heterologous genes in bacteria, plants, yeast, mammalian cells, and transgenic animals. The mechanisms preventing expression of genes with rare or low-usage codons at adequate levels are not completely elucidated. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) represents an interesting model for studying how differences in codon usage affect gene expression in heterologous systems. Construction of synthetic genes with optimized codons demonstrated that the codon-usage effects might be a major impediment to the efficient expression of HIV gag/pol and env gene products in mammalian cells. According to another hypothesis, the poor expression of HIV structural proteins even without HIV context is attributed to the so-called cis-acting inhibitory elements (INS), which are located within the protein-coding region. They consist of AU-rich sequences and may be inactivated through the introduction of multiple mutations over the large regions of gag gene. In our work, we evaluated expression of hybrid HIV-1 gag mRNAs where wild-type (A-rich) gag sequences were combined with artificial sequences. In such "humanized" gag fragments with adapted codon usage, AT-content was significantly reduced in favor of G and C nucleotides without any changes in protein sequence. We show that wild-type gag sequences negatively influence expression of gag-reporter, and the addition of fragments with optimized codons to gag mRNA partially rescues its expression. The results demonstrate that the expression of HIV-1 gag is determined by the ratio of optimized and rare codons within mRNA. Our data also indicates that some wtgag fragments counteract the influence of the other wtgag sequences, which cause the inhibition of gag expression. The presented data do not contradict the concept of INS; yet, it makes the definition of INS more complex. This supports the idea of a broader role of the selected codon usage in influencing the expression of HIV proteins in mammalian cells.

MeSH terms

  • Codon / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral*
  • Gene Products, gag / genetics
  • Genes, gag / genetics*
  • Genetic Vectors
  • HIV-1 / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Plasmids
  • Protein Precursors / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / genetics*
  • Transfection
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • Codon
  • Gene Products, gag
  • Protein Precursors
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins
  • p55 gag precursor protein, Human immunodeficiency virus 1