by Cody J. Warren, Nicholas R. Meyerson, Obaiah Dirasantha, Emily R. Feldman, Gregory K. Wilkerson, Sara L. Sawyer
Individuals chronically infected with HIV-1 harbor complex viral populations within their bloodstreams. Recently, it has come to light that when these people infect others, the new infection is typically established by only one or a small number of virions from within this complex viral swarm. An important goal is to characterize the biological properties of HIV-1 virions that seed and exist early in new human infections because these are potentially the only viruses against which a prophylactic HIV-1 vaccine would need to elicit protection. This includes understanding how the Envelope (Env) protein of these virions interacts with the T-cell receptor CD4, which supports attachment and entry of HIV-1 into target cells. We examined early HIV-1 isolates for their ability to infect cells via the CD4 receptor of 15 different primate species. Primates were the original source of HIV-1 and now serve as valuable animal models for studying HIV-1. We find that most primary isolates of HIV-1 from the blood, including early isolates, are highly selective and enter cells through some primate CD4 receptor orthologs but not others. This phenotype is remarkably consistent, regardless of route of transmission, viral subtype, or time of isolation post infection. We show that the weak CD4 binding affinity of blood-derived HIV-1 isolates is what makes them sensitive to the small sequence differences in CD4 from one primate species to the next. To substantiate this, we engineered an early HIV-1 Env to have high, medium, or low binding affinity to CD4, and we show that it loses the ability to enter cells via the CD4 of many primate species as the binding affinity gets weaker. Based on the phenotype of selective use of primate CD4, we find that weak CD4 binding appears to be a nearly universal property of HIV-1 circulating in the bloodstream. Therefore, weak binding to CD4 must be a selected and important property in the biology of HIV-1 in the body. We identify six primate species that encode CD4 receptors that fully support the entry of early HIV-1 isolates despite their low binding affinity for CD4. These findings will help inform long-standing efforts to model HIV-1 transmission and early disease in primates.
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