Genetically-characterizing full-length HIV-1 RNA is critical for identifying genetically-intact genomes and for comparing these RNA genomes to proviral DNA. We have developed a method for sequencing plasma-derived RNA using long-range sequencing (PRLS assay; ∼8.3 kb from gag to the 3' end or ∼5 kb from integrase to the 3' end). We employed the gag-3' PRLS assay to sequence HIV-1 RNA genomes from ART-naive participants during acute/early infection (n = 6) or chronic infection (n = 2). On average, only 65% of plasma-derived genomes were genetically-intact. Defects were found in all genomic regions but were concentrated in env and pol. We compared these genomes to near-full-length proviral sequences from paired peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) samples for the acute/early group and found that near-identical (>99.98% identical) sequences were identified only during acute infection. For three participants who initiated therapy during acute infection, we used the int-3' PRLS assay to sequence plasma-derived genomes from an analytical treatment interruption and identified 100% identical genomes between pretherapy and rebound time points. The PRLS assay provides a new level of sensitivity for understanding the genetic composition of plasma-derived HIV-1 RNA from viremic individuals either pretherapy or after treatment interruption, which will be invaluable in assessing possible HIV-1 curative strategies. IMPORTANCE We developed novel plasma-derived RNA using long-range sequencing assays (PRLS assay; 8.3 kb, gag-3', and 5.0 kb, int-3'). Employing the gag-3' PRLS assay, we found that 26% to 51% of plasma-derived genomes are genetically-defective, largely as a result of frameshift mutations and deletions. These genetic defects were concentrated in the env region compared to gag and pol, likely a reflection of viral immune escape in env during untreated HIV-1 infection. Employing the int-3' PRLS assay, we found that analytical treatment interruption (ATI) plasma-derived sequences were identical and genetically-intact. Several sequences from the ATI plasma samples were identical to viral sequences from pretherapy plasma and PBMC samples, indicating that HIV-1 reservoirs established prior to therapy contribute to viral rebound during an ATI. Therefore, near-full-length sequencing of HIV-1 particles is required to gain an accurate picture of the genetic landscape of plasma HIV-1 virions in studies of HIV-1 replication and persistence.
Keywords: human immunodeficiency virus.