Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1) is, like most pathogens, under selective pressure to escape the immune system of its host. In particular, HIV-1 can avoid recognition by cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) by altering the binding affinity of viral peptides to human leukocyte antigen (HLA) molecules, the role of which is to present those peptides to the immune system. It is generally assumed that HLA escape mutations carry a replicative fitness cost, but these costs have not been quantified. In this study, we assess the replicative cost of mutations which are likely to escape presentation by HLA molecules in the region of HIV-1 protease and reverse transcriptase. Specifically, we combine computational approaches for prediction of in vitro replicative fitness and peptide binding affinity to HLA molecules. We find that mutations which impair binding to HLA-A molecules tend to have lower in vitro replicative fitness than mutations which do not impair binding to HLA-A molecules, suggesting that HLA-A escape mutations carry higher fitness costs than non-escape mutations. We argue that the association between fitness and HLA-A binding impairment is probably due to an intrinsic cost of escape from HLA-A molecules, and these costs are particularly strong for HLA-A alleles associated with efficient virus control. Counter-intuitively, we do not observe a significant effect in the case of HLA-B, but, as discussed, this does not argue against the relevance of HLA-B in virus control. Overall, this article points to the intriguing possibility that HLA-A molecules preferentially target more conserved regions of HIV-1, emphasizing the importance of HLA-A genes in the evolution of HIV-1 and RNA viruses in general.
Authors: Rafal Mostowy, Roger D. Kouyos, Ilka Hoof, Trevor Hinkley, Mojgan Haddad, Jeannette M. Whitcomb, Christos J. Petropoulos, Can Keşmir & Sebastian Bonhoeffer
Article published in PLoS Computational Biology: volume 8 (May 2012), issue 5, pages e1002525