Background: Variable loops 1 and 2 (V1V2) of the HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein gp120 perform two key functions: ensuring envelope trimer entry competence and shielding against neutralizing antibodies. While preserving entry functionality would suggest a high need for V1V2 sequence optimization and conservation, shielding efficacy is known to depend on a high flexibility of V1V2 giving rise to its substantial sequence variability. How entry competence of the trimer is maintained despite the continuous emergence of antibody escape mutations within V1V2 has not been resolved. Since HIV cell-cell transmission is considered a highly effective means of virus dissemination, we investigated whether cell-cell transmission may serve to enhance infectivity of V1V2 variants with debilitated free virus entry.
Results: In a detailed comparison of wt and V1V2 mutant envelopes, V1V2 proved to be a key factor in ascertaining free virus infectivity, with V1V2 mutants displaying significantly reduced trimer integrity. Despite these defects, cell-cell transmission was able to partially rescue infectivity of V1V2 mutant viruses. We identified two regions, encompassing amino acids 156 to 160 (targeted by broadly neutralizing antibodies) and 175 to 180 (encompassing the α4β7 binding site) which were particularly prone to free virus infectivity loss upon mutation but maintained infectivity in cell-cell transmission. Of note, V1V2 antibody shielding proved important during both free virus infection and cell-cell transmission.
Conclusions: Based on our data we propose a model for V1V2 evolution that centers on cell-cell transmission as a salvage pathway for virus replication. Escape from antibody neutralization may frequently result in V1V2 mutations that reduce free virus infectivity. Cell-cell transmission could provide these escape viruses with sufficiently high replication levels that enable selection of compensatory mutations, thereby restoring free virus infectivity while ensuring antibody escape. Thus, our study highlights the need to factor in cell-cell transmission when considering neutralization escape pathways of HIV-1.