Antibodies (Abs) specific for the V3 loop of the HIV-1 gp120 envelope neutralize most tier 1 and many tier 2 viruses and are present in essentially all HIV-infected individuals as well as immunized humans and animals. Vaccine-induced V3 Abs are associated with reduced HIV infection rates in humans and affect the nature of transmitted viruses in infected vaccinees, despite the fact that V3 is often occluded in the envelope trimer. Here, we link structural and experimental data showing how conformational alterations of the envelope trimer render viruses exceptionally sensitive to V3 Abs. The experiments interrogated the neutralization sensitivity of pseudoviruses with single amino acid mutations in various regions of gp120 that were predicted to alter packing of the V3 loop in the Env trimer. The results indicate that the V3 loop is metastable in the envelope trimer on the virion surface, flickering between states in which V3 is either occluded or available for binding to chemokine receptors (leading to infection) and to V3 Abs (leading to virus neutralization). The spring-loaded V3 in the envelope trimer is easily released by disruption of the stability of the V3 pocket in the unliganded trimer or disruption of favorable V3/pocket interactions. Formation of the V3 pocket requires appropriate positioning of the V1V2 domain, which is, in turn, dependent on the conformation of the bridging sheet and on the stability of the V1V2 B-C strand-connecting loop.
Importance: The levels of antibodies to the third variable region (V3) of the HIV envelope protein correlate with reduced HIV infection rates. Previous studies showed that V3 is often occluded, as it sits in a pocket of the envelope trimer on the surface of virions; however, the trimer is flexible, allowing occluded portions of the envelope (like V3) to flicker into an exposed position that binds antibodies. Here we provide a systematic interrogation of mechanisms by which single amino acid changes in various regions of gp120 (i) render viruses sensitive to neutralization by V3 antibodies, (ii) result in altered packing of the V3 loop, and (iii) activate an open conformation that exposes V3 to the effects of V3 Abs. Taken together, these and previous studies explain how V3 antibodies can protect against HIV-1 infection and why they should be one of the targets of vaccine-induced antibodies.
Copyright © 2015 Zolla-Pazner et al.