The HIV-1 Viral Protease Is Activated during Assembly and Budding Prior to Particle Release

J Virol. 2022 May 11;96(9):e0219821. doi: 10.1128/jvi.02198-21. Epub 2022 Apr 19.


HIV-1 encodes a viral protease that is essential for the maturation of infectious viral particles. While protease inhibitors are effective antiretroviral agents, recent studies have shown that prematurely activating, rather than inhibiting, protease function leads to the pyroptotic death of infected cells, with exciting implications for efforts to eradicate viral reservoirs. Despite 40 years of research into the kinetics of protease activation, it remains unclear exactly when protease becomes activated. Recent reports have estimated that protease activation occurs minutes to hours after viral release, suggesting that premature protease activation is challenging to induce efficiently. Here, monitoring viral protease activity with sensitive techniques, including nanoscale flow cytometry and instant structured illumination microscopy, we demonstrate that the viral protease is activated within cells prior to the release of free virions. Using genetic mutants that lock protease into a precursor conformation, we further show that both the precursor and mature protease have rapid activation kinetics and that the activity of the precursor protease is sufficient for viral fusion with target cells. Our finding that HIV-1 protease is activated within producer cells prior to release of free virions helps resolve a long-standing question of when protease is activated and suggests that only a modest acceleration of protease activation kinetics is required to induce potent and specific elimination of HIV-infected cells. IMPORTANCE HIV-1 protease inhibitors have been a mainstay of antiretroviral therapy for more than 2 decades. Although antiretroviral therapy is effective at controlling HIV-1 replication, persistent reservoirs of latently infected cells quickly reestablish replication if therapy is halted. A promising new strategy to eradicate the latent reservoir involves prematurely activating the viral protease, which leads to the pyroptotic killing of infected cells. Here, we use highly sensitive techniques to examine the kinetics of protease activation during and shortly after particle formation. We found that protease is fully activated before virus is released from the cell membrane, which is hours earlier than recent estimates. Our findings help resolve a long-standing debate as to when the viral protease is initially activated during viral assembly and confirm that prematurely activating HIV-1 protease is a viable strategy to eradicate infected cells following latency reversal.

Keywords: HIV-1 protease; instant structured illumination microscopy; mature protease; nanoscale flow cytometry; precursor protease; protease activation.

MeSH terms

  • Enzyme Activation / physiology
  • HIV Infections / virology
  • HIV Protease* / metabolism
  • HIV-1* / drug effects
  • HIV-1* / enzymology
  • Humans
  • Protease Inhibitors / pharmacology


  • Protease Inhibitors
  • HIV Protease