Recently, a vaccine consisting of DNA priming followed by boosting with modified vaccinia Ankara (MVA) has provided long-term protection of rhesus macaques against a virulent challenge with a chimera of simian and human immunodeficiency viruses. Here, we report studies on the development of the DNA component for a DNA/MVA HIV vaccine for humans. Specifically, we assess the ability of a codon-optimized Gag-expressing DNA and two noncodon-optimized Gag-Pol-Env-expressing DNAs to prime the MVA booster dose. The codon-optimized DNA expressed virus-like particles (VLPs), whereas one of the noncodon-optimized DNAs expressed VLPs and the other expressed aggregates of HIV proteins. The MVA boost expressed Gag-Pol and Env and produced VLPs. Immunogenicity studies in macaques used one intramuscular prime with 600 microg of DNA and two intramuscular boosts with 1 x 10(8) pfu of MVA at weeks 8 and 30. The codon-optimized and noncodon-optimized DNAs proved similar in their ability to prime anti-Gag T cell responses. The aggregate and VLP-expressing Gag-Pol-Env DNAs also showed no significant differences in their ability to prime anti-Env Ab responses. The second MVA booster dose did not increase the peak CD4 and CD8 T cell responses, but increased anti-Env Ab titers by 40- to 90-fold. MVA-only immunizations elicited 10-100 times lower frequencies of T cells and 2-4 lower titers of anti-Env Ab than the Gag-Pol-Env DNA/MVA immunizations. Based on the breadth of the T cell response and a trend toward higher titers of anti-Env Ab, we are moving forward with human trials of the noncodon-optimized VLP-expressing DNA.