Key Positions of HIV-1 Env and Signatures of Vaccine Efficacy Show Gradual Reduction of Population Founder Effects at the Clade and Regional Levels

mBio. 2020 Jun 9;11(3):e00126-20. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00126-20.


HIV-1 group M was transmitted to humans nearly one century ago. The virus has since evolved to form distinct clades, which spread to different regions of the world. The envelope glycoproteins (Envs) of HIV-1 have rapidly diversified in all infected populations. We examined whether key antigenic sites of Env and signatures of vaccine efficacy are evolving toward similar or distinct structural forms in different populations worldwide. Patterns of amino acid variants that emerged at each position of Env were compared between diverse HIV-1 clades and isolates from different geographic regions. Interestingly, at each Env position, the amino acid in the clade ancestral or regional-founder virus was replaced by a unique frequency distribution (FD) of amino acids. FDs are highly conserved in populations from different regions worldwide and in paraphyletic and monophyletic subclade groups. Remarkably, founder effects of Env mutations at the clade and regional levels have gradually decreased during the pandemic by evolution of each site toward the unique combination of variants. Therefore, HIV-1 Env is evolving at a population level toward well-defined "target" states; these states are not specific amino acids but rather specific distributions of amino acid frequencies. Our findings reveal the powerful nature of the forces that guide evolution of Env and their conservation across different populations. Such forces have caused a gradual decrease in the interpopulation diversity of Env despite an increasing intrapopulation diversity.IMPORTANCE The Env protein of HIV-1 is the primary target in AIDS vaccine design. Frequent mutations in the virus increase the number of Env forms in each population, limiting the efficacy of AIDS vaccines. Comparison of newly emerging forms in different populations showed that each position of Env is evolving toward a specific combination of amino acids. Similar changes are occurring in different HIV-1 subtypes and geographic regions toward the same position-specific combinations of amino acids, often from distinct ancestral sequences. The predictable nature of HIV-1 Env evolution, as shown here, provides a new framework for designing vaccines that are tailored to the unique combination of variants expected to emerge in each virus subtype and geographic region.

Keywords: HIV-1; envelope glycoproteins; population-level evolution; vaccine design; virus diversity.