A mechanistic understanding of allosteric immune escape pathways in the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein

PLoS Comput Biol. 2013;9(5):e1003046. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003046. Epub 2013 May 16.


The HIV-1 envelope (Env) spike, which consists of a compact, heterodimeric trimer of the glycoproteins gp120 and gp41, is the target of neutralizing antibodies. However, the high mutation rate of HIV-1 and plasticity of Env facilitates viral evasion from neutralizing antibodies through various mechanisms. Mutations that are distant from the antibody binding site can lead to escape, probably by changing the conformation or dynamics of Env; however, these changes are difficult to identify and define mechanistically. Here we describe a network analysis-based approach to identify potential allosteric immune evasion mechanisms using three known HIV-1 Env gp120 protein structures from two different clades, B and C. First, correlation and principal component analyses of molecular dynamics (MD) simulations identified a high degree of long-distance coupled motions that exist between functionally distant regions within the intrinsic dynamics of the gp120 core, supporting the presence of long-distance communication in the protein. Then, by integrating MD simulations with network theory, we identified the optimal and suboptimal communication pathways and modules within the gp120 core. The results unveil both strain-dependent and -independent characteristics of the communication pathways in gp120. We show that within the context of three structurally homologous gp120 cores, the optimal pathway for communication is sequence sensitive, i.e. a suboptimal pathway in one strain becomes the optimal pathway in another strain. Yet the identification of conserved elements within these communication pathways, termed inter-modular hotspots, could present a new opportunity for immunogen design, as this could be an additional mechanism that HIV-1 uses to shield vulnerable antibody targets in Env that induce neutralizing antibody breadth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites
  • CD4 Antigens / chemistry
  • CD4 Antigens / metabolism
  • Computational Biology
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp120* / chemistry
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp120* / metabolism
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp120* / physiology
  • HIV Infections / virology
  • HIV-1* / chemistry
  • HIV-1* / metabolism
  • HIV-1* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Immune Evasion / physiology*
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation*
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Protein Conformation
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Structural Homology, Protein


  • CD4 Antigens
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp120
  • gp120 protein, Human immunodeficiency virus 1