Fabio Zanini and Richard A. Neher
Journal of virology, vol. 87, 11843--11850, 2013
Intrapatient evolution of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) is driven by the adaptive immune system resulting in rapid change of HIV-1 proteins. When cytotoxic CD8(+) T cells or neutralizing antibodies target a new epitope, the virus often escapes via nonsynonymous mutations that impair recognition. Synonymous mutations do not affect this interplay and are often assumed to be neutral. We test this assumption by tracking synonymous mutations in longitudinal intrapatient data from the C2-V5 part of the env gene. We find that most synonymous variants are lost even though they often reach high frequencies in the viral population, suggesting a cost to the virus. Using published data from SHAPE (selective 2'-hydroxyl acylation analyzed by primer extension) assays, we find that synonymous mutations that disrupt base pairs in RNA stems flanking the variable loops of gp120 are more likely to be lost than other synonymous changes: these RNA hairpins might be important for HIV-1. Computational modeling indicates that, to be consistent with the data, a large fraction of synonymous mutations in this genomic region need to be deleterious with a cost on the order of 0.002 per day. This weak selection against synonymous substitutions does not result in a strong pattern of conservation in cross-sectional data but slows down the rate of evolution considerably. Our findings are consistent with the notion that large-scale patterns of RNA structure are functionally relevant, whereas the precise base pairing pattern is not.