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Characterization of HIV-1 gag and nef in Cameroon: further evidence of extreme diversity at the origin of the HIV-1 group M epidemic
Virology Journalvolume 10, Article number: 29 (2013)
Cameroon, in west central Africa, has an extraordinary degree of HIV diversity, presenting a major challenge for the development of an effective HIV vaccine. Given the continuing need to closely monitor the emergence of new HIV variants in the country, we analyzed HIV-1 genetic diversity in 59 plasma samples from HIV-infected Cameroonian blood donors. Full length HIV gag and nef sequences were generated and phylogenetic analyses were performed.
All gag and nef sequences clustered within HIV-1M. Circulating recombinant form CRF02_AG predominated, accounting for 50% of the studied infections, followed by clade G (11%), clade D and CRF37_cpx (4% each), and clades A, F, CRF01_AE and CRF36_cpx (2% each). In addition, 22% of the studied viruses apparently had nef and gag genes from viruses belonging to different clades, with the majority (8/10) having either a nef or gag gene derived from CRF02_AG. Interestingly, five gag sequences (10%) and three (5%) nef sequences were neither obviously recombinant nor easily classifiable into any of the known HIV-1M clades.
This suggests the widespread existence of highly divergent HIV lineages in Cameroon. While the genetic complexity of the Cameroonian HIV-1 epidemic has potentially serious implications for the design of biomedical interventions, detailed analyses of divergent Cameroonian HIV-1M lineages could be crucial for dissecting the earliest evolutionary steps in the emergence of HIV-1M.
The Congo basin in west central Africa is thought to be the origin of HIV, where several cross-species transmission events from chimpanzees to humans occurred [1, 2]. Cameroon, located in this region, has one of the most genetically diverse HIV epidemics in the world [3–6]. Alongside CRF02_AG, which accounts for more than half of infections in the country, circulating virus lineages include every known HIV-1M subtype, numerous circulating recombinant forms (CRFs) and a variety of apparently unique recombinant forms (URFs) . The prevalence of HIV-1 in Cameroon is one of the highest in west central Africa, at 5.3% . This, together with the co-circulation of divergent variants of multiple clades, has created the conditions for frequent mixed infections and inter-clade recombination. Constantly improving phylogenetics-based analytical techniques and rapidly expanding HIV sequence datasets allow for better characterization of diverse sequences, and promise to yield important insights into the origin, evolution and spread of HIV-1.
Given the potential impact of HIV-1 diversity on both vaccine development and the sustainability of antiretroviral therapies, it is particularly important that molecular epidemiological surveillance is continued in HIV diversity hotspots such as Cameroon. In this study we have focused on characterizing the diversity of gag and nef genes of Cameroonian HIV-1 isolates. These genes are particularly relevant because they encode highly immunogenic proteins that are frequently included in candidate vaccines [9–11]. We sequenced 50 full length HIV-1 gag and 55 nef genes from 59 HIV-infected blood donors in Cameroon. To obtain a phylogenetic view of Cameroonian HIV diversity that explicitly accounted for the confounding effects of recombination, we performed extensive recombination-aware phylogenetic analyses of these new sequences along with publically available homologous HIV-1M gag and nef sequences from the Congo basin and a representative selection of the major known HIV lineages from the rest of the world. These representative sequences were selected to include the broadest diversity of sequences previously identified as belonging to these known clades by constructing maximum likelihood trees from all available gag and nef sequences for each clade, and selecting one sequence from each of the up to ten most basal lineages from the root of these clades.
Anonymously-donated HIV-infected blood units were collected between December 2006 and August 2007 from Yaoundé Central Hospital, Cameroon, in a study approved by the National Ethics Committee of the Cameroonian Ministry of Health and the University of Cape Town. Although no data on risk factors for HIV was available for the blood donors, they are believed to represent the general adult population of Yaoundé. All donors were antiretroviral therapy naïve and only age and gender information were obtained.
RNA was extracted from plasma samples, reverse transcribed and PCR amplified as described previously  using subtype non-specific HIV-1 primers for HIV-1 full length gag and nef genes, and sequenced. Sequenced fragments were assembled using ChromasPro. Full length gag and nef sequences were generated and aligned using MUSCLE with manual editing in MEGA5, together with a representative selection of 270 gag and 279 nef HIV sequences from the rest of the world and all other published gag (266) and nef (278) sequences from Cameroon and other west central African countries available in the LANL (http://www.hiv.lanl.gov/content/sequence/HIV/mainpage.html) and Genbank databases. Maximum likelihood phylogenetic trees were constructed from these sequences with 100 full maximum likelihood bootstrap replicates (implemented in PHYML ), following either complete removal of recombinant sequence fragments or the division of recombinant sequences into their constituent fragments by a blinded fully exploratory screen for recombination using RDP3 . The recombination screen was fully exploratory in that every sequence was analysed for evidence of both intra- and inter-clade recombination. Either full nef and gag sequences or the sub-fragments of these sequences identified as having recombinant origins were classified as belonging to particular HIV clades if they clustered with reference sequences of these clades. Divergent sequences were defined as those residing on isolated branches outside of subtrees containing previously defined HIV-1 subtype or CRF lineages. Outlier sequences on the other hand were defined as those residing on basal branches of subtrees containing previously defined HIV-1 subtype or CRF lineages. Nucleotide sequences were deposited in GenBank [JX244899-JX244948 for gag and JX244949-JX245003 for nef.
Clinical and demographic data of the HIV-infected Cameroonian study participants are summarized in Table 1. Individuals had a median age of 31 years and the majority were male. They had a median CD4 count of 432 cells/mm3 and a median viral load of approximately 100 000 RNA copies/ml.
All our sequences were derived from HIV-1 group M viruses (Figure 1 and Additional files 1, 2). The sequences clustered with different clades and circulating recombinant forms distributed throughout the phylogenetic trees (Table 2), consistent with the breadth of HIV-1 diversity previously described in Cameroon. CRF02_AG-like viruses dominated the clade distribution, infecting 50% of the 46 participants for which both genes were sequenced (Figure 2). Participants infected with viruses having both nef and gag clustering within known HIV-1M clades included those belonging to clades G, D, A, and F. Subtype G sequences accounted for 11% of infections, subtype D for 4% and sub-subtypes A1 and F2 for 2% each. In addition to CRF02_AG, other CRFs identified were CRF37_cpx (4%), and CRF01_AE and CRF36_cpx (2% each). Additionally, in two samples for which only gag or nef was typed, these were classified as belonging to CRF11_cpx. Notably, despite subtypes B and C collectively accounting for approximately 75% infections worldwide , none of our sequences were classified as belonging to either of these clades.
In 10/46 samples from which both nef and gag sequences were analysed, they were classified as belonging to different clades from one another. One of the two gene sequences from 8/10 of these patients were classified as CRF02_AG (Figure 2 and Table 3). In addition, we detected numerous recombination breakpoints within the genome regions analysed. Among the newly sequenced gag genes, three (6%) were identified as containing recombination breakpoints between gene segments that phylogenetically clustered within two distinct groups of the same clade, indicating that they were likely intra-clade recombinants. Whereas two of these (BS05 and BS55) were CRF02_AG/02_AG recombinants, one (BS57) was a CRF11_cpx/11_cpx recombinant (Table 3). Four of the newly sequenced nef genes (7%) also showed evidence of intra-clade recombination, including three (BS12, BS48 and BS51) which were intra-subtype G recombinants and one (BS39) which was an intra-CRF02_AG recombinant. Whereas one of the newly sequenced gag genes (BS72) was apparently derived through recombination between F2 and CRF36_cpx parental viruses, one of the nef genes was apparently derived through recombination between F and CRF22_01A1 parental viruses.
The phylogenetic analysis of gag sequences derived from the Cameroonian samples further revealed four sequences (BS09, BS25, BS16 and BS42) situated on divergent branches near the base of the CRF02_AG subtree, highlighting the remarkable diversity within the CRF02_AG clade in Cameroon (indicated by blue squares in Additional file 1). Furthermore, five other Cameroonian gag sequences determined here branched very near the base of the clades that they grouped with: BS02 from the base of CRF09_cpx/CRF45_cpx, BS27 from the base of CRF37_cpx, BS26 from the base of CRF01_AE, BS57 from the base of the CRF11_cpx and BS72 from the base of the F2 and CRF36_cpx clades (blue arrows in Additional file 1). Similarly, in nef, three such sequences also branched from near the base of the clades that they were most closely clustered with: BS74 near the base of the A clade, BS42 near the base of the CRF01_AE clade and BS29 near the base of the CRF02_AG/G clades (blue arrows in Additional file 2).
Several studies have characterized HIV-1M sequences from Cameroon [3–7]. Our analysis of all available full-length gag and nef gene sequences from west central Africa clearly reinforces the findings of these previous studies regarding the high degree of HIV-1M genetic diversity in this country. Also, unsurprising in the light of previous Cameroonian diversity studies, was our finding that most of the newly sampled sequences are likely CRF02_AG (accounting for 50% of HIV-1M infections), with the other “pure” subtypes (G, D, A, and F) and CRFs (CRF11_cpx, 36_cpx, 37_cpx, and CRF01_AE) accounting for the remainder of infections.
CRF02_AG and clade G viruses are broadly distributed across west central Africa and have apparently been circulating stably there for many years [3, 17–19], consistent with the presence of fragments of these viruses having been identified in a large number of CRFs and URFs that have been sampled from this region. Our analysis demonstrated that these two clades are highly diverse, and in most instances where gag and nef sequences from an individual patient had discordant clade classifications, the sequence of one of the genes clustered within the CRF02_AG clade, reinforcing the notion that this viral clade is a major contributor of genetic material to new recombinants ; an alternative explanation, however, could be that the gag and nef genes were amplified from different viruses co-infecting the same patients. Ongoing molecular and clinical surveillance will reveal whether new recombinants will begin to circulate stably, will harbor biological properties that favor their transmission, or will impact clinical outcomes.
Carr et al.  recently identified sequences that were outliers of various HIV-1M clades, and presented analyses that many of these viruses were likely URFs, which might explain the phylogenetic placement of these sequences on the outskirts of known clades. Although the majority of the outlier viruses found in our study were also URFs, they remained outliers after the removal of recombinant segments. It thus appears that these sequences represent viruses that are genuinely highly divergent and are possibly extant descendants of previously unknown early diverging HIV-1M lineages. Such sequences could help tremendously with efforts to piece together the early evolutionary history of HIV-1M. For example, sequences such as BS29, which are outliers of both the CRF02_AG and G clades may help to resolve the controversy surrounding the origin of CRF02_AG [20–22].
In summary, our data show the predominance in an urban Cameroonian setting of HIV-1 CRF02_AG viruses alongside viruses belonging to known HIV-1M clades, URFs and currently unclassified divergent lineages. We are currently performing full-genome sequencing to further characterize the divergent sequences identified here.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus
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The authors are grateful to Andile Nofemela and Roman Ntale for technical assistance with viral sequencing. This research was supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (technical co-operation project RAF/6/029), Poliomyelitis Research Foundation (PRF) of South Africa and the University of Cape Town, for collaborative projects with partners in the global South. We thank Gerald Chege, Andreia Soares and Cobus Olivier for critical comments on the manuscript, and Mrs Kathryn Norman for administrative assistance. MT is a Carnegie Corporation PhD Fellow and received funding from the PRF. WAB is a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Fellow in Public Health and Tropical Medicine. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
MT carried out the laboratory work and phylogenetic analyses, with assistance from LZ and DM. CW and EMN conceived of the study, and participated in its design and coordination. WB and DM supervised the work. MT, DM and WB wrote the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.