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J Virol. 1994 November; 68(11): 7433–7447.
PMCID: PMC237186

Genetic diversity of human immunodeficiency virus type 2: evidence for distinct sequence subtypes with differences in virus biology.


The virulence properties of human immunodeficiency virus type 2 (HIV-2) are known to vary significantly and to range from relative attenuation in certain individuals to high-level pathogenicity in others. These differences in clinical manifestations may, at least in part, be determined by genetic differences among infecting virus strains. Evaluation of the full spectrum of HIV-2 genetic diversity is thus a necessary first step towards understanding its molecular epidemiology, natural history of infection, and biological diversity. In this study, we have used nested PCR techniques to amplify viral sequences from the DNA of uncultured peripheral blood mononuclear cells from 12 patients with HIV-2 seroreactivity. Sequence analysis of four nonoverlapping genomic regions allowed a comprehensive analysis of HIV-2 phylogeny. The results revealed (i) the existence of five distinct and roughly equidistant evolutionary lineages of HIV-2 which, by analogy with HIV-1, have been termed sequence subtypes A to E; (ii) evidence for a mosaic HIV-2 genome, indicating that coinfection with genetically divergent strains and recombination can occur in HIV-2-infected individuals; and (iii) evidence supporting the conclusion that some of the HIV-2 subtypes may have arisen from independent introductions of genetically diverse sooty mangabey viruses into the human population. Importantly, only a subset of HIV-2 strains replicated in culture: all subtype A viruses grew to high titers, but attempts to isolate representatives of subtypes C, D, and E, as well as the majority of subtype B viruses, remained unsuccessful. Infection with all five viral subtypes was detectable by commercially available serological (Western immunoblot) assays, despite intersubtype sequence differences of up to 25% in the gag, pol, and env regions. These results indicate that the genetic and biological diversity of HIV-2 is far greater than previously appreciated and suggest that there may be subtype-specific differences in virus biology. Systematic natural history studies are needed to determine whether this heterogeneity has clinical relevance and whether the various HIV-2 subtypes differ in their in vivo pathogenicity.

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