Single-cell glycomics analysis by CyTOF-Lec reveals glycan features defining cells differentially susceptible to HIV

Elife. 2022 Jul 5:11:e78870. doi: 10.7554/eLife.78870.


High-parameter single-cell phenotyping has enabled in-depth classification and interrogation of immune cells, but to date has not allowed for glycan characterization. Here, we develop CyTOF-Lec as an approach to simultaneously characterize many protein and glycan features of human immune cells at the single-cell level. We implemented CyTOF-Lec to compare glycan features between different immune subsets from blood and multiple tissue compartments, and to characterize HIV-infected cell cultures. Using bioinformatics approaches to distinguish preferential infection of cellular subsets from viral-induced remodeling, we demonstrate that HIV upregulates the levels of cell-surface fucose and sialic acid in a cell-intrinsic manner, and that memory CD4+ T cells co-expressing high levels of fucose and sialic acid are highly susceptible to HIV infection. Sialic acid levels were found to distinguish memory CD4+ T cell subsets expressing different amounts of viral entry receptors, pro-survival factors, homing receptors, and activation markers, and to play a direct role in memory CD4+ T cells' susceptibility to HIV infection. The ability of sialic acid to distinguish memory CD4+ T cells with different susceptibilities to HIV infection was experimentally validated through sorting experiments. Together, these results suggest that HIV remodels not only cellular proteins but also glycans, and that glycan expression can differentiate memory CD4+ T cells with vastly different susceptibility to HIV infection.

Keywords: CyTOF; HIV; T cells; glycans; human; immunology; infectious disease; inflammation; lectins; microbiology; sialic acid.

Plain language summary

Living cells have a sugar coating. These sugars include molecules called glycans, which help cells interact with the outside world. The types of sugars on cells can affect their properties, including potentially their susceptibility to infection by viruses, such as the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV. To date, most research examining cells susceptible to HIV has focused on cell surface proteins, not sugars. To study these proteins, researchers had previously covered them in metal-studded antibodies (which stick to proteins) and used a technique called cytometry time of flight, or CyTOF for short, to quantify the levels of these proteins on the surface of cells susceptible to HIV. Adapting this tool to investigate sugars could answer questions about HIV infection. For example, does the virus prefer to infect cells coated in certain sugar molecules? And does it change the pattern of sugars on the surface of the cells it infects? Ma et al. adapted CyTOF to use molecules called lectins (which stick to sugars) in conjunction with the metal-studded antibodies. This made it possible to simultaneously measure the levels of 34 different proteins and 5 different types of sugars on individual cells. The pattern of sugars on the surface of cells from the immune system differed depending on what tissues the cells came from, and what types of cells they were. The results showed that HIV preferred to infect memory CD4 T cells with high levels of two types of sugar: fucose and sialic acid. Furthermore, during infection, the levels of both these sugars increased. Current treatments for HIV keep virus levels low but do not cure the infection. Further research could determine whether sugars have a role to play in HIV persistence. It is possible that the sugar patterns preferred by the virus help it to avoid detection. A clearer understanding of cell surface sugars could lead to sugar-targeting drugs that kill infected cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • CD4-Positive T-Lymphocytes
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Fucose
  • Glycomics
  • HIV Infections*
  • HIV-1* / physiology
  • Humans
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid
  • Polysaccharides


  • Polysaccharides
  • Fucose
  • N-Acetylneuraminic Acid