APOBEC3G induces a hypermutation gradient: purifying selection at multiple steps during HIV-1 replication results in levels of G-to-A mutations that are high in DNA, intermediate in cellular viral RNA, and low in virion RNA.
Russell RA., Moore MD., Hu WS., Pathak VK.
BACKGROUND: Naturally occurring Vif variants that are unable to inhibit the host restriction factor APOBEC3G (A3G) have been isolated from infected individuals. A3G can potentially induce G-to-A hypermutation in these viruses, and hypermutation could contribute to genetic variation in HIV-1 populations through recombination between hypermutant and wild-type genomes. Thus, hypermutation could contribute to the generation of immune escape and drug resistant variants, but the genetic contribution of hypermutation to the viral evolutionary potential is poorly understood. In addition, the mechanisms by which these viruses persist in the host despite the presence of A3G remain unknown. RESULTS: To address these questions, we generated a replication-competent HIV-1 Vif mutant in which the A3G-binding residues of Vif, Y(40)RHHY(44), were substituted with five alanines. As expected, the mutant was severely defective in an A3G-expressing T cell line and exhibited a significant delay in replication kinetics. Analysis of viral DNA showed the expected high level of G-to-A hypermutation; however, we found substantially reduced levels of G-to-A hypermutation in intracellular viral RNA (cRNA), and the levels of G-to-A mutations in virion RNA (vRNA) were even further reduced. The frequencies of hypermutation in DNA, cRNA, and vRNA were 0.73%, 0.12%, and 0.05% of the nucleotides sequenced, indicating a gradient of hypermutation. Additionally, genomes containing start codon mutations and early termination codons within gag were isolated from the vRNA. CONCLUSION: These results suggest that sublethal levels of hypermutation coupled with purifying selection at multiple steps during the early phase of viral replication lead to the packaging of largely unmutated genomes, providing a mechanism by which mutant Vif variants can persist in infected individuals. The persistence of genomes containing mutated gag genes despite this selection pressure indicates that dual infection and complementation can result in the packaging of hypermutated genomes which, through recombination with wild-type genomes, could increase viral genetic variation and contribute to evolution.