The human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) envelope trimer maintains a closed, metastable configuration to protect vulnerable epitopes from neutralizing antibodies. Here, we identify key hydrophobic constraints at the trimer apex that function as global stabilizers of the HIV-1 envelope spike configuration. Mutation of individual residues within four hydrophobic clusters that fasten together the V1V2, V3, and C4 domains at the apex of gp120 dramatically increases HIV-1 sensitivity to weak and restricted neutralizing antibodies targeting epitopes that are largely concealed in the prefusion Env spike, consistent with the adoption of a partially open trimer configuration. Conversely, the same mutations decrease the sensitivity to broad and potent neutralizing antibodies that preferentially recognize the closed trimer. Sera from chronically HIV-infected patients neutralize open mutants with enhanced potency, compared to the wild-type virus, suggesting that a large fraction of host-generated antibodies target concealed epitopes. The identification of structural constraints that maintain the HIV-1 envelope in an antibody-protected state may inform the design of a protective vaccine.IMPORTANCE Elucidating the structure and function of the HIV-1 envelope proteins is critical for the design of an effective vaccine. Despite the availability of many high-resolution structures, key functional correlates in the envelope trimer remain undefined. We utilized a combination of structural analysis, in silico energy calculation, mutagenesis, and neutralization profiling to dissect the functional anatomy of the trimer apex, which acts as a global regulator of the HIV-1 spike conformation. We identify four hydrophobic clusters that stabilize the spike in a tightly closed configuration and, thereby, play a critical role in protecting it from the reach of neutralizing antibodies.
Keywords: HIV-1; envelope; envelope glycoprotein; immune evasion; neutralizing antibodies; prefusion state; protein structure-function; trimer.
Copyright © 2021 Zhang et al.