HIV-infected subjects under antiretroviral treatment (ART) harbor a persistent viral reservoir in resting CD4+ T cells, which accounts for the resurgence of HIV replication after ART interruption. A large majority of HIV reservoir genomes are genetically defective, but even among intact proviruses few seem able to generate infectious virus. To understand this phenomenon, we examined the function and expression of HIV envelope glycoproteins reactivated from the reservoir of four HIV-infected subjects under suppressive ART. We studied full-length genetically intact env sequences from both replicative viruses and cell-associated mRNAs. We found that these Env proteins varied extensively in fusogenicity and infectivity, with strongest functional defects found in Envs from cell-associated mRNAs. Env functional impairments were essentially explained by defects in Env protein expression. Our results support the idea that defects in HIV Env expression, preventing cytopathic or immune HIV clearance, contribute to the persistence of the HIV T-cell reservoir in vivoIMPORTANCE In most individuals, evolution of HIV infection is efficiently controlled on the long-term by combination antiviral therapies. These treatments, however, fail to eradicate HIV from the infected subjects, a failure that results both in resurgence of virus replication and in resumption of HIV pathogenicity when the treatment is stopped. HIV resurgence, in these instances, is widely assumed to emerge from a reservoir of silent virus integrated in the genomes of a small number of T lymphocytes. The silent HIV reservoir is mostly composed of heavily deleted or mutated HIV DNA. Moreover, among the seemingly intact remaining HIV, only very few are actually able to efficiently propagate in tissue culture. In this study, we find that intact HIV in the reservoir often carry strong defects in their capacity to promote fusion to neighboring cells and infection of target cells, a defect related to the function and expression of the HIV envelope glycoprotein. Impaired envelope glycoprotein expression and function could explain why cells harboring these viruses tend to remain undetected and unharmed in the reservoir.
Keywords: HIV; envelope function; reservoir.
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