HIV is a member of the genus Lentivirus, part of the family Retroviridae. Lentiviruses have many morphologies and biological properties in common. Many species are infected by lentiviruses, which are characteristically responsible for long-duration illnesses with a long incubation period. Lentiviruses are transmitted as single-stranded, positive-sense, enveloped RNA viruses. Upon entry into the target cell, the viral RNA genome is converted (reverse transcribed) into double-stranded DNA by a virally encoded enzyme, reverse transcriptase, that is transported along with the viral genome in the virus particle. The resulting viral DNA is then imported into the cell nucleus and integrated into the cellular DNA by a virally encoded enzyme, integrase, and host co-factors. Once integrated, the virus may become latent, allowing the virus and its host cell to avoid detection by the immune system, for an indeterminate amount of time. The HIV virus can remain dormant in the human body for up to ten years after primary infection; during this period the virus does not cause symptoms. Alternatively, the integrated viral DNA may be transcribed, producing new RNA genomes and viral proteins, using host cell resources, that are packaged and released from the cell as new virus particles that will begin the replication cycle anew.
Two types of HIV have been characterized: HIV-1 and HIV-2. HIV-1 is the virus that was initially discovered and termed both lymphadenopathy associated virus (LAV) and human T-lymphotropic virus 3 (HTLV-III). HIV-1 is more virulent and more infective than HIV-2, and is the cause of the majority of HIV infections globally. The lower infectivity of HIV-2, compared to HIV-1, implies that fewer of those exposed to HIV-2 will be infected per exposure. Due to its relatively poor capacity for transmission, HIV-2 is largely confined to West Africa.
Structure and genome
Diagram of the HIV virion
HIV is different in structure from other retroviruses. It is roughly spherical with a diameter of about 120 nm, around 60 times smaller than a red blood cell. It is composed of two copies of positive-sense single-stranded RNA that codes for the virus's nine genes enclosed by a conical capsid composed of 2,000 copies of the viral protein p24. The single-stranded RNA is tightly bound to nucleocapsid proteins, p7, and enzymes needed for the development of the virion such as reverse transcriptase, proteases, ribonuclease and integrase. A matrix composed of the viral protein p17 surrounds the capsid ensuring the integrity of the virion particle.
This is, in turn, surrounded by the viral envelope, that is composed of the lipid bilayer taken from the membrane of a human host cell when the newly formed virus particle buds from the cell. The viral envelope contains proteins from the host cell and relatively few copies of the HIV Envelope protein, which consists of a cap made of three molecules known as glycoprotein (gp) 120, and a stem consisting of three gp41 molecules that anchor the structure into the viral envelope. The Envelope protein, encoded by the HIV env gene, allows the virus to attach to target cells and fuse the viral envelope with the target cell's membrane releasing the viral contents into the cell and initiating the infectious cycle.
As the sole viral protein on the surface of the virus, the Envelope protein is a major target for HIV vaccine efforts. Over half of the mass of the trimeric envelope spike is N-linked glycans. The density is high as the glycans shield the underlying viral protein from neutralisation by antibodies. This is one of the most densely glycosylated molecules known and the density is sufficiently high to prevent the normal maturation process of glycans during biogenesis in the endoplasmic and Golgi apparatus. The majority of the glycans are therefore stalled as immature 'high-mannose' glycans not normally present on human glycoproteins that are secreted or present on a cell surface. The unusual processing and high density means that almost all broadly neutralising antibodies that have so far been identified (from a subset of patients that have been infected for many months to years) bind to, or are adapted to cope with, these envelope glycans.
The molecular structure of the viral spike has now been determined by X-ray crystallography and cryogenic electron microscopy. These advances in structural biology were made possible due to the development of stable recombinant forms of the viral spike by the introduction of an intersubunit disulphide bond and an isoleucine to proline mutation (radical replacement of an amino acid) in gp41. The so-called SOSIP trimers not only reproduce the antigenic properties of the native viral spike, but also display the same degree of immature glycans as presented on the native virus. Recombinant trimeric viral spikes are promising vaccine candidates as they display less non-neutralising epitopes than recombinant monomeric gp120, which act to suppress the immune response to target epitopes.
Structure of the RNA genome of HIV-1
The RNA genome consists of at least seven structural landmarks (LTR, TAR, RRE, PE, SLIP, CRS, and INS), and nine genes (gag, pol, and env, tat, rev, nef, vif, vpr, vpu, and sometimes a tenth tev, which is a fusion of tat, env and rev), encoding 19 proteins. Three of these genes, gag, pol, and env, contain information needed to make the structural proteins for new virus particles. For example, env codes for a protein called gp160 that is cut in two by a cellular protease to form gp120 and gp41. The six remaining genes, tat, rev, nef, vif, vpr, and vpu (or vpx in the case of HIV-2), are regulatory genes for proteins that control the ability of HIV to infect cells, produce new copies of virus (replicate), or cause disease.
The two tat proteins (p16 and p14) are transcriptional transactivators for the LTR promoter acting by binding the TAR RNA element. The TAR may also be processed into microRNAs that regulate the apoptosis genes ERCC1 and IER3. The rev protein (p19) is involved in shuttling RNAs from the nucleus and the cytoplasm by binding to the RRE RNA element. The vif protein (p23) prevents the action of APOBEC3G (a cellular protein that deaminates cytidine to uridine in the single-stranded viral DNA and/or interferes with reverse transcription). The vpr protein (p14) arrests cell division at G2/M. The nef protein (p27) down-regulates CD4 (the major viral receptor), as well as the MHC class I and class II molecules.
Nef also interacts with SH3 domains. The vpu protein (p16) influences the release of new virus particles from infected cells. The ends of each strand of HIV RNA contain an RNA sequence called a long terminal repeat (LTR). Regions in the LTR act as switches to control production of new viruses and can be triggered by proteins from either HIV or the host cell. The Psi element is involved in viral genome packaging and recognized by gag and rev proteins. The SLIP element (
) is involved in the frameshift in the gag-pol reading frame required to make functional pol.
Diagram of the immature and mature forms of HIV
The term viral tropism refers to the cell types a virus infects. HIV can infect a variety of immune cells such as CD4+ T cells, macrophages, and microglial cells. HIV-1 entry to macrophages and CD4+ T cells is mediated through interaction of the virion envelope glycoproteins (gp120) with the CD4 molecule on the target cells' membrane and also with chemokine co-receptors.
Macrophage-tropic (M-tropic) strains of HIV-1, or non-syncytia-inducing strains (NSI; now called R5 viruses) use the β-chemokine receptor, CCR5, for entry and are thus able to replicate in both macrophages and CD4+ T cells. This CCR5 co-receptor is used by almost all primary HIV-1 isolates regardless of viral genetic subtype. Indeed, macrophages play a key role in several critical aspects of HIV infection. They appear to be the first cells infected by HIV and perhaps the source of HIV production when CD4+ cells become depleted in the patient. Macrophages and microglial cells are the cells infected by HIV in the central nervous system. In the tonsils and adenoids of HIV-infected patients, macrophages fuse into multinucleated giant cells that produce huge amounts of virus.
T-tropic strains of HIV-1, or syncytia-inducing strains (SI; now called X4 viruses) replicate in primary CD4+ T cells as well as in macrophages and use the α-chemokine receptor, CXCR4, for entry.
Dual-tropic HIV-1 strains are thought to be transitional strains of HIV-1 and thus are able to use both CCR5 and CXCR4 as co-receptors for viral entry.
The α-chemokine SDF-1, a ligand for CXCR4, suppresses replication of T-tropic HIV-1 isolates. It does this by down-regulating the expression of CXCR4 on the surface of HIV target cells. M-tropic HIV-1 isolates that use only the CCR5 receptor are termed R5; those that use only CXCR4 are termed X4, and those that use both, X4R5. However, the use of co-receptors alone does not explain viral tropism, as not all R5 viruses are able to use CCR5 on macrophages for a productive infection and HIV can also infect a subtype of myeloid dendritic cells, which probably constitute a reservoir that maintains infection when CD4+ T cell numbers have declined to extremely low levels.
Some people are resistant to certain strains of HIV. For example, people with the CCR5-Δ32 mutation are resistant to infection by the R5 virus, as the mutation leaves HIV unable to bind to this co-receptor, reducing its ability to infect target cells.
Sexual intercourse is the major mode of HIV transmission. Both X4 and R5 HIV are present in the seminal fluid, which enables the virus to be transmitted from a male to his sexual partner. The virions can then infect numerous cellular targets and disseminate into the whole organism. However, a selection process leads to a predominant transmission of the R5 virus through this pathway. In patients infected with subtype B HIV-1, there is often a co-receptor switch in late-stage disease and T-tropic variants that can infect a variety of T cells through CXCR4. These variants then replicate more aggressively with heightened virulence that causes rapid T cell depletion, immune system collapse, and opportunistic infections that mark the advent of AIDS. Thus, during the course of infection, viral adaptation to the use of CXCR4 instead of CCR5 may be a key step in the progression to AIDS. A number of studies with subtype B-infected individuals have determined that between 40 and 50 percent of AIDS patients can harbour viruses of the SI and, it is presumed, the X4 phenotypes.
HIV-2 is much less pathogenic than HIV-1 and is restricted in its worldwide distribution to West Africa. The adoption of "accessory genes" by HIV-2 and its more promiscuous pattern of co-receptor usage (including CD4-independence) may assist the virus in its adaptation to avoid innate restriction factors present in host cells. Adaptation to use normal cellular machinery to enable transmission and productive infection has also aided the establishment of HIV-2 replication in humans. A survival strategy for any infectious agent is not to kill its host, but ultimately become a commensal organism. Having achieved a low pathogenicity, over time, variants that are more successful at transmission will be selected.
The HIV replication cycle
Entry to the cell
Mechanism of viral entry
Initial interaction between gp120 and CD4. 2.
Conformational change in gp120 allows for secondary interaction with CCR5. 3.
The distal tips of gp41 are inserted into the cellular membrane. 4.
gp41 undergoes significant conformational change; folding in half and forming coiled-coils. This process pulls the viral and cellular membranes together, fusing them.
The HIV virion enters macrophages and CD4+ T cells by the adsorption of glycoproteins on its surface to receptors on the target cell followed by fusion of the viral envelope with the target cell membrane and the release of the HIV capsid into the cell.
Entry to the cell begins through interaction of the trimeric envelope complex (gp160 spike) on the HIV viral envelope and both CD4 and a chemokine co-receptor (generally either CCR5 or CXCR4, but others are known to interact) on the target cell surface. Gp120 binds to integrin α4β7 activating LFA-1, the central integrin involved in the establishment of virological synapses, which facilitate efficient cell-to-cell spreading of HIV-1. The gp160 spike contains binding domains for both CD4 and chemokine receptors.
The first step in fusion involves the high-affinity attachment of the CD4 binding domains of gp120 to CD4. Once gp120 is bound with the CD4 protein, the envelope complex undergoes a structural change, exposing the chemokine receptor binding domains of gp120 and allowing them to interact with the target chemokine receptor. This allows for a more stable two-pronged attachment, which allows the N-terminal fusion peptide gp41 to penetrate the cell membrane. Repeat sequences in gp41, HR1, and HR2 then interact, causing the collapse of the extracellular portion of gp41 into a hairpin shape. This loop structure brings the virus and cell membranes close together, allowing fusion of the membranes and subsequent entry of the viral capsid.
After HIV has bound to the target cell, the HIV RNA and various enzymes, including reverse transcriptase, integrase, ribonuclease, and protease, are injected into the cell. During the microtubule-based transport to the nucleus, the viral single-strand RNA genome is transcribed into double-strand DNA, which is then integrated into a host chromosome.
HIV can infect dendritic cells (DCs) by this CD4-CCR5 route, but another route using mannose-specific C-type lectin receptors such as DC-SIGN can also be used. DCs are one of the first cells encountered by the virus during sexual transmission. They are currently thought to play an important role by transmitting HIV to T cells when the virus is captured in the mucosa by DCs. The presence of FEZ-1, which occurs naturally in neurons, is believed to prevent the infection of cells by HIV.
HIV-1 entry, as well as entry of many other retroviruses, has long been believed to occur exclusively at the plasma membrane. More recently, however, productive infection by pH-independent, clathrin-mediated endocytosis of HIV-1 has also been reported and was recently suggested to constitute the only route of productive entry.
Replication and transcription
Shortly after the viral capsid enters the cell, an enzyme called reverse transcriptase liberates the positive-sense single-stranded RNA genome from the attached viral proteins and copies it into a complementary DNA (cDNA) molecule. The process of reverse transcription is extremely error-prone, and the resulting mutations may cause drug resistance or allow the virus to evade the body's immune system. The reverse transcriptase also has ribonuclease activity that degrades the viral RNA during the synthesis of cDNA, as well as DNA-dependent DNA polymerase activity that creates a sense DNA from the antisense cDNA. Together, the cDNA and its complement form a double-stranded viral DNA that is then transported into the cell nucleus. The integration of the viral DNA into the host cell's genome is carried out by another viral enzyme called integrase.
The integrated viral DNA may then lie dormant, in the latent stage of HIV infection. To actively produce the virus, certain cellular transcription factors need to be present, the most important of which is NF-κB (nuclear factor kappa B), which is upregulated when T cells become activated. This means that those cells most likely to be targeted, entered and subsequently killed by HIV are those actively fighting infection.
During viral replication, the integrated DNA provirus is transcribed into RNA, some of which then undergo RNA splicing to produce mature messenger RNAs (mRNAs). These mRNAs are exported from the nucleus into the cytoplasm, where they are translated into the regulatory proteins Tat (which encourages new virus production) and Rev. As the newly produced Rev protein is produced it moves to the nucleus, where it binds to full-length, unspliced copies of virus RNAs and allows them to leave the nucleus. Some of these full-length RNAs function as new copies of the virus genome, while others function as mRNAs that are translated to produce the structural proteins Gag and Env. Gag proteins bind to copies of the virus RNA genome to package them into new virus particles.
HIV-1 and HIV-2 appear to package their RNA differently. HIV-1 will bind to any appropriate RNA. HIV-2 will preferentially bind to the mRNA that was used to create the Gag protein itself.
Two RNA genomes are encapsidated in each HIV-1 particle (see Structure and genome of HIV). Upon infection and replication catalyzed by reverse transcriptase, recombination between the two genomes can occur. Recombination occurs as the single-strand, positive-sense RNA genomes are reverse transcribed to form DNA. During reverse transcription, the nascent DNA can switch multiple times between the two copies of the viral RNA. This form of recombination is known as copy-choice. Recombination events may occur throughout the genome. Anywhere from two to 20 recombination events per genome may occur at each replication cycle, and these events can rapidly shuffle the genetic information that is transmitted from parental to progeny genomes.
Viral recombination produces genetic variation that likely contributes to the evolution of resistance to anti-retroviral therapy. Recombination may also contribute, in principle, to overcoming the immune defenses of the host. Yet, for the adaptive advantages of genetic variation to be realized, the two viral genomes packaged in individual infecting virus particles need to have arisen from separate progenitor parental viruses of differing genetic constitution. It is unknown how often such mixed packaging occurs under natural conditions.
Bonhoeffer et al. suggested that template switching by reverse transcriptase acts as a repair process to deal with breaks in the single-stranded RNA genome. In addition, Hu and Temin suggested that recombination is an adaptation for repair of damage in the RNA genomes. Strand switching (copy-choice recombination) by reverse transcriptase could generate an undamaged copy of genomic DNA from two damaged single-stranded RNA genome copies. This view of the adaptive benefit of recombination in HIV could explain why each HIV particle contains two complete genomes, rather than one. Furthermore, the view that recombination is a repair process implies that the benefit of repair can occur at each replication cycle, and that this benefit can be realized whether or not the two genomes differ genetically. On the view that recombination in HIV is a repair process, the generation of recombinational variation would be a consequence, but not the cause of, the evolution of template switching.
HIV-1 infection causes chronic inflammation and production of reactive oxygen species. Thus, the HIV genome may be vulnerable to oxidative damages, including breaks in the single-stranded RNA. For HIV, as well as for viruses in general, successful infection depends on overcoming host defensive strategies that often include production of genome-damaging reactive oxygen species. Thus, Michod et al. suggested that recombination by viruses is an adaptation for repair of genome damages, and that recombinational variation is a byproduct that may provide a separate benefit.
Assembly and release
HIV assembling on the surface
of an infected macrophage
. The HIV virions have been marked with a green fluorescent tag
and then viewed under a fluorescent microscope.
The final step of the viral cycle, assembly of new HIV-1 virions, begins at the plasma membrane of the host cell. The Env polyprotein (gp160) goes through the endoplasmic reticulum and is transported to the Golgi apparatus where it is cleaved by furin resulting in the two HIV envelope glycoproteins, gp41 and gp120. These are transported to the plasma membrane of the host cell where gp41 anchors gp120 to the membrane of the infected cell. The Gag (p55) and Gag-Pol (p160) polyproteins also associate with the inner surface of the plasma membrane along with the HIV genomic RNA as the forming virion begins to bud from the host cell. The budded virion is still immature as the gag polyproteins still need to be cleaved into the actual matrix, capsid and nucleocapsid proteins. This cleavage is mediated by the packaged viral protease and can be inhibited by antiretroviral drugs of the protease inhibitor class. The various structural components then assemble to produce a mature HIV virion. Only mature virions are then able to infect another cell.
Spread within the body
Animation demonstrating cell-free spread of HIV.
The classical process of infection of a cell by a virion can be called "cell-free spread" to distinguish it from a more recently recognized process called "cell-to-cell spread". In cell-free spread (see figure), virus particles bud from an infected T cell, enter the blood or and then infect another T cell following a chance encounter. HIV can also disseminate by direct transmission from one cell to another by a process of cell-to-cell spread, for which two pathways have been described. Firstly, an infected T cell can transmit virus directly to a target T cell via a virological synapse. Secondly, an antigen-presenting cell (APC), such as a macrophage or dendritic cell, can transmit HIV to T cells by a process that either involves productive infection (in the case of macrophages) or capture and transfer of virions in trans (in the case of dendritic cells). Whichever pathway is used, infection by cell-to-cell transfer is reported to be much more efficient than cell-free virus spread. A number of factors contribute to this increased efficiency, including polarised virus budding towards the site of cell-to-cell contact, close apposition of cells, which minimizes fluid-phase diffusion of virions, and clustering of HIV entry receptors on the target cell towards the contact zone. Cell-to-cell spread is thought to be particularly important in lymphoid tissues where CD4+ T cells are densely packed and likely to interact frequently. Intravital imaging studies have supported the concept of the HIV virological synapse in vivo. The many spreading mechanisms available to HIV contribute to the virus' ongoing replication in spite of anti-retroviral therapies.
HIV differs from many viruses in that it has very high genetic variability. This diversity is a result of its fast replication cycle, with the generation of about 1010 virions every day, coupled with a high mutation rate of approximately 3 x 10−5 per nucleotide base per cycle of replication and recombinogenic properties of reverse transcriptase.
This complex scenario leads to the generation of many variants of HIV in a single infected patient in the course of one day. This variability is compounded when a single cell is simultaneously infected by two or more different strains of HIV. When simultaneous infection occurs, the genome of progeny virions may be composed of RNA strands from two different strains. This hybrid virion then infects a new cell where it undergoes replication. As this happens, the reverse transcriptase, by jumping back and forth between the two different RNA templates, will generate a newly synthesized retroviral DNA sequence that is a recombinant between the two parental genomes. This recombination is most obvious when it occurs between subtypes.
The closely related simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) has evolved into many strains, classified by the natural host species. SIV strains of the African green monkey (SIVagm) and sooty mangabey (SIVsmm) are thought to have a long evolutionary history with their hosts. These hosts have adapted to the presence of the virus, which is present at high levels in the host's blood, but evokes only a mild immune response, does not cause the development of simian AIDS, and does not undergo the extensive mutation and recombination typical of HIV infection in humans.
In contrast, when these strains infect species that have not adapted to SIV ("heterologous" or similar hosts such as rhesus or cynomologus macaques), the animals develop AIDS and the virus generates genetic diversity similar to what is seen in human HIV infection. Chimpanzee SIV (SIVcpz), the closest genetic relative of HIV-1, is associated with increased mortality and AIDS-like symptoms in its natural host. SIVcpz appears to have been transmitted relatively recently to chimpanzee and human populations, so their hosts have not yet adapted to the virus. This virus has also lost a function of the nef gene that is present in most SIVs. For non-pathogenic SIV variants, nef suppresses T cell activation through the CD3 marker. Nef's function in non-pathogenic forms of SIV is to downregulate expression of inflammatory cytokines, MHC-1, and signals that affect T cell trafficking. In HIV-1 and SIVcpz, nef does not inhibit T-cell activation and it has lost this function. Without this function, T cell depletion is more likely, leading to immunodeficiency.
Three groups of HIV-1 have been identified on the basis of differences in the envelope (env) region: M, N, and O. Group M is the most prevalent and is subdivided into eight subtypes (or clades), based on the whole genome, which are geographically distinct. The most prevalent are subtypes B (found mainly in North America and Europe), A and D (found mainly in Africa), and C (found mainly in Africa and Asia); these subtypes form branches in the phylogenetic tree representing the lineage of the M group of HIV-1. Co-infection with distinct subtypes gives rise to circulating recombinant forms (CRFs). In 2000, the last year in which an analysis of global subtype prevalence was made, 47.2% of infections worldwide were of subtype C, 26.7% were of subtype A/CRF02_AG, 12.3% were of subtype B, 5.3% were of subtype D, 3.2% were of CRF_AE, and the remaining 5.3% were composed of other subtypes and CRFs. Most HIV-1 research is focused on subtype B; few laboratories focus on the other subtypes. The existence of a fourth group, "P", has been hypothesised based on a virus isolated in 2009. The strain is apparently derived from gorilla SIV (SIVgor), first isolated from western lowland gorillas in 2006.
HIV-2's closest relative is SIVsm, a strain of SIV found in sooty mangabees. Since HIV-1 is derived from SIVcpz, and HIV-2 from SIVsm, the genetic sequence of HIV-2 is only partially homologous to HIV-1 and more closely resembles that of SIVsm.