Amino-acid co-variation in HIV-1 Gag subtype C: HLA-mediated selection pressure and compensatory dynamics.
Rolland M., Carlson JM., Manocheewa S., Swain JV., Lanxon-Cookson E., Deng W., Rousseau CM., Raugi DN., Learn GH., Maust BS., Coovadia H., Ndung'u T., Goulder PJ., Walker BD., Brander C., Heckerman DE., Mullins JI.
BACKGROUND: Despite high potential for HIV-1 genetic variation, the emergence of some mutations is constrained by fitness costs, and may be associated with compensatory amino acid (AA) co-variation. To characterize the interplay between Cytotoxic T Lymphocyte (CTL)-mediated pressure and HIV-1 evolutionary pathways, we investigated AA co-variation in Gag sequences obtained from 449 South African individuals chronically infected with HIV-1 subtype C. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Individuals with CTL responses biased toward Gag presented lower viral loads than individuals with under-represented Gag-specific CTL responses. Using methods that account for founder effects and HLA linkage disequilibrium, we identified 35 AA sites under Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA)-restricted CTL selection pressure and 534 AA-to-AA interactions. Analysis of two-dimensional distances between co-varying residues revealed local stabilization mechanisms since 40% of associations involved neighboring residues. Key features of our co-variation analysis included sites with a high number of co-varying partners, such as HLA-associated sites, which had on average 55% more connections than other co-varying sites. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Clusters of co-varying AA around HLA-associated sites (especially at typically conserved sites) suggested that cooperative interactions act to preserve the local structural stability and protein function when CTL escape mutations occur. These results expose HLA-imprinted HIV-1 polymorphisms and their interlinked mutational paths in Gag that are likely due to opposite selective pressures from host CTL-mediated responses and viral fitness constraints.