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J Virol. 1997 June; 71(6): 4479–4484.
PMCID: PMC191667

Broad spectrum of in vivo fitness of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 subpopulations differing at reverse transcriptase codons 41 and 215.


Viral populations in a human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1)-infected individual behave as a quasispecies with a rated distribution of fitness variants. Fitness distributions in naturally occurring viral populations have been difficult to study due to the lack of markers for individual virus clones and complicating inter- and intrahost factors like the presence of multiple cell types with distinct tropisms, differences in route of transmission, and intervening immunity. Here, we quantitated the relative fitness in vivo of three subpopulations of HIV-1 marked by mutations at codons 41 and 215 of reverse transcriptase (RT) directly related to zidovudine resistance in an untreated individual who was infected by a zidovudine-resistant strain transmitted from a donor on therapy. The transmission event did not have a substantial impact on the distribution of mutants within the dominant virus population replicating to high levels in the recipient. The evolution of the RT gene was monitored for 20 months. All 102 clones obtained from the donor and the recipient at the different time points contained the M41L mutation, which is associated with a fourfold reduction in zidovudine sensitivity. The leucine at position 41 was stable, although it was encoded by TTG and CTG triplets that fluctuated in abundance partially due to founder effects of clones with nonsilent mutations at codon 215. Of the three subpopulations in the patient, distinguished by a tyrosine (TAC), aspartic acid (GAC), or serine (TCC) at the 215 position of RT, the relative fitness of the GAC variant was calculated to be 10 to 25% higher than the initial TAC variant, and the relative fitness of the TCC variant was 1% higher than that of the GAC variant. Similar to other RNA viruses, lentivirus populations like HIV-1 in patients with a high virus load apparently consist of a broader spectrum of fitness variants than the 1 to 2% fitness difference sufficient for significant replicative advantage.

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