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J Virol. 1996 May; 70(5): 3098–3107.
PMCID: PMC190172

Genetic characterization of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 in blood and genital secretions: evidence for viral compartmentalization and selection during sexual transmission.


To explore the mechanism of sexual transmission of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), we compared HIV-1 gp120 sequences in longitudinal samples from five acute seroconvertors with those from their corresponding sexual partners (transmitters). We used a quantitative homoduplex tracking assay to compare the overall genetic composition of HIV-1 quasispecies in each transmission pair and to track the transmitted viruses during the acute and asymptomatic stages of HIV-1 infection. In the chronically infected transmitters, HIV-1 variants in genital secretions differed from those in blood and variants in cells differed from those in cell-free plasma, indicating remarkable sequence heterogeneity in these subjects as well as compartmentalization of the virus in different bodily sites. Conversely, two of five seroconvertors had only a few related variants and three of five harbored only one viral population, indicating that in these subjects the transmitted viruses were typically homogeneous. Transmitted viruses were evident in the donor's seminal plasma (one of five cases) and even more so in their seminal cells (three of five cases), suggesting that both cell-associated and cell-free viruses can be transmitted. In every pair studied, the transmitted variant(s) represents only a minor population in the semen of the corresponding transmitter, thereby providing evidence that HIV-1 selection indeed occurs during sexual transmission.

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