Accurate predictions of population-level changes in sequence and structural properties of HIV-1 Env using a volatility-controlled diffusion model

PLoS Biol. 2017 Apr 6;15(4):e2001549. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2001549. eCollection 2017 Apr.


The envelope glycoproteins (Envs) of HIV-1 continuously evolve in the host by random mutations and recombination events. The resulting diversity of Env variants circulating in the population and their continuing diversification process limit the efficacy of AIDS vaccines. We examined the historic changes in Env sequence and structural features (measured by integrity of epitopes on the Env trimer) in a geographically defined population in the United States. As expected, many Env features were relatively conserved during the 1980s. From this state, some features diversified whereas others remained conserved across the years. We sought to identify "clues" to predict the observed historic diversification patterns. Comparison of viruses that cocirculate in patients at any given time revealed that each feature of Env (sequence or structural) exists at a defined level of variance. The in-host variance of each feature is highly conserved among individuals but can vary between different HIV-1 clades. We designate this property "volatility" and apply it to model evolution of features as a linear diffusion process that progresses with increasing genetic distance. Volatilities of different features are highly correlated with their divergence in longitudinally monitored patients. Volatilities of features also correlate highly with their population-level diversification. Using volatility indices measured from a small number of patient samples, we accurately predict the population diversity that developed for each feature over the course of 30 years. Amino acid variants that evolved at key antigenic sites are also predicted well. Therefore, small "fluctuations" in feature values measured in isolated patient samples accurately describe their potential for population-level diversification. These tools will likely contribute to the design of population-targeted AIDS vaccines by effectively capturing the diversity of currently circulating strains and addressing properties of variants expected to appear in the future.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Antigenic Variation*
  • Cell Line
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diffusion
  • Dogs
  • Epitopes
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp120 / blood
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp120 / chemistry
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp120 / genetics*
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp120 / metabolism
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41 / blood
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41 / chemistry
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41 / genetics*
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41 / metabolism
  • HIV Infections / blood
  • HIV Infections / immunology*
  • HIV Infections / virology
  • HIV-1 / immunology*
  • HIV-1 / isolation & purification
  • HIV-1 / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Iowa
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Models, Molecular*
  • Phylogeny
  • Protein Structure, Quaternary
  • RNA / chemistry
  • RNA / metabolism
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / chemistry
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / metabolism
  • Washington


  • Epitopes
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp120
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41
  • RNA, recombinant
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins
  • gp120 protein, Human immunodeficiency virus 1
  • gp41 protein, Human immunodeficiency virus 1
  • RNA