Perturbing HIV-1 ribosomal frameshifting frequency reveals a cis preference for Gag-Pol incorporation into assembling virions

J Virol. 2021 Oct 13;JVI0134921. doi: 10.1128/JVI.01349-21. Online ahead of print.


HIV-1 virion production is driven by Gag and Gag-Pol (GP) proteins, with Gag forming the bulk of the capsid and driving budding while GP binds Gag to deliver the essential virion enzymes Protease, Reverse Transcriptase, and Integrase. Virion GP levels are traditionally thought to reflect the relative abundances of GP and Gag in cells (∼1:20), dictated by the frequency of a -1 programmed ribosomal frameshifting (PRF) event occurring in gag-pol mRNAs. Herein we exploited a panel of PRF mutant viruses to show that mechanisms in addition to PRF regulate GP incorporation into virions. First, we show that GP is enriched ∼3-fold in virions relative to cells, with viral infectivity better maintained at subphysiological levels of GP compared to when GP levels are too high. Second, we report that GP is more efficiently incorporated into virions when Gag and GP are synthesized in cis (i.e., from the same gag-pol mRNA) relative to trans, suggesting that Gag/GP translation and assembly are spatially coupled processes. Third, we show that, surprisingly, virions exhibit a strong upper limit to trans-delivered GP incorporation; an adaptation that appears to allow the virus to temper defects to GP/Gag cleavage that may negatively impact reverse transcription. Taken together, we propose a "weighted Goldilocks" scenario for HIV-1 GP incorporation, wherein combined mechanisms of GP enrichment and exclusion buffer virion infectivity over a broad range of local GP concentrations. These results provide new insights into the HIV-1 virion assembly pathway relevant to the anticipated efficacy of PRF-targeted antiviral strategies. Importance HIV-1 infectivity requires incorporation of the Gag-Pol (GP) precursor polyprotein into virions during the process of virus particle assembly. Mechanisms dictating GP incorporation into assembling virions are poorly defined, with GP levels in virions traditionally thought to solely reflect relative levels of Gag and GP expressed in cells; dictated by the frequency of a -1 programmed ribosomal frameshifting (PRF) event that occurs in gag-pol mRNAs. Herein we provide experimental support for a "weighted Goldilocks" scenario for GP incorporation, wherein the virus exploits both random and non-random mechanisms to buffer infectivity over a wide range of GP expression levels. These mechanistic data are relevant to ongoing efforts to develop antiviral strategies targeting PRF frequency and/or HIV-1 virion maturation.