PloS one

A Naturally Occurring rev1-vpu Fusion Gene Does Not Confer a Fitness Advantage to HIV-1.

PMID 26554585


Pandemic strains of HIV-1 (group M) encode a total of nine structural (gag, pol, env), regulatory (rev, tat) and accessory (vif, vpr, vpu, nef) genes. However, some subtype A and C viruses exhibit an unusual gene arrangement in which the first exon of rev (rev1) and the vpu gene are placed in the same open reading frame. Although this rev1-vpu gene fusion is present in a considerable fraction of HIV-1 strains, its functional significance is unknown. Examining infectious molecular clones (IMCs) of HIV-1 that encode the rev1-vpu polymorphism, we show that a fusion protein is expressed in infected cells. Due to the splicing pattern of viral mRNA, however, these same IMCs also express a regular Vpu protein, which is produced at much higher levels. To investigate the function of the fusion gene, we characterized isogenic IMC pairs differing only in their ability to express a Rev1-Vpu protein. Analysis in transfected HEK293T and infected CD4+ T cells showed that all of these viruses were equally active in known Vpu functions, such as down-modulation of CD4 or counteraction of tetherin. Furthermore, the polymorphism did not affect Vpu-mediated inhibition of NF-кB activation or Rev-dependent nuclear export of incompletely spliced viral mRNAs. There was also no evidence for enhanced replication of Rev1-Vpu expressing viruses in primary PBMCs or ex vivo infected human lymphoid tissues. Finally, the frequency of HIV-1 quasispecies members that encoded a rev1-vpu fusion gene did not change in HIV-1 infected individuals over time. Expression of a rev1-vpu fusion gene does not affect regular Rev and Vpu functions or alter HIV-1 replication in primary target cells. Since there is no evidence for increased replication fitness of rev1-vpu encoding viruses, this polymorphism likely emerged in the context of other mutations within and/or outside the rev1-vpu intergenic region, and may have a neutral phenotype.