CRISPR/Cas9 Ablation of Integrated HIV-1 Accumulates Proviral DNA Circles with Reformed Long Terminal Repeats

J Virol. 2021 Nov 9;95(23):e0135821. doi: 10.1128/JVI.01358-21. Epub 2021 Sep 22.


Gene editing may be used to excise the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) provirus from the host cell genome, possibly eradicating the infection. Here, using cells acutely or latently infected by HIV-1 and treated with long terminal repeat (LTR)-targeting CRISPR/Cas9, we show that the excised HIV-1 provirus persists for a few weeks and may rearrange in circular molecules. Although circular proviral DNA is naturally formed during HIV-1 replication, we observed that gene editing might increase proviral DNA circles with restored LTRs. These extrachromosomal elements were recovered and probed for residual activity through their transfection in uninfected cells. We discovered that they can be transcriptionally active in the presence of Tat and Rev. Although confirming that gene editing is a powerful tool to eradicate HIV-1 infection, this work highlights that, to achieve this goal, the LTRs must be cleaved in several pieces to avoid residual activity and minimize the risk of reintegration in the context of genomic instability, possibly caused by the off-target activity of Cas9. IMPORTANCE The excision of HIV-1 provirus from the host cell genome has proven feasible in vitro and, to some extent, in vivo. Among the different approaches, CRISPR/Cas9 is the most promising tool for gene editing. The present study underlines the remarkable effectiveness of CRISPR/Cas9 in removing the HIV-1 provirus from infected cells and investigates the fate of the excised HIV-1 genome. This study demonstrates that the free provirus may persist in the cell after editing and in appropriate circumstances may reactivate. As an episome, it might be transcriptionally active, especially in the presence of Tat and Rev. The persistence of the HIV-1 episome was strongly decreased by gene editing with multiple targets. Although gene editing has the potential to eradicate HIV-1 infection, this work highlights a potential issue that warrants further investigation.

Keywords: CRISPR/Cas9; HIV-1; J-Lat; Rev; Tat; endonuclease; endonucleases; gene editing; gene therapy; latent infection; latent reservoir.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • CRISPR-Associated Protein 9
  • CRISPR-Cas Systems*
  • DNA, Circular*
  • Gene Editing
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral
  • Genetic Therapy
  • HEK293 Cells
  • HIV Infections / virology
  • HIV-1 / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Proviruses / genetics*
  • RNA, Guide, Kinetoplastida / genetics
  • Terminal Repeat Sequences*


  • DNA, Circular
  • RNA, Guide
  • CRISPR-Associated Protein 9