Deep sequencing technologies have the potential to transform the study of highly variable viral pathogens by providing a rapid and cost-effective approach to sensitively characterize rapidly evolving viral quasispecies. Here, we report on a high-throughput whole HIV-1 genome deep sequencing platform that combines 454 pyrosequencing with novel assembly and variant detection algorithms. In one subject we combined these genetic data with detailed immunological analyses to comprehensively evaluate viral evolution and immune escape during the acute phase of HIV-1 infection. The majority of early, low frequency mutations represented viral adaptation to host CD8+ T cell responses, evidence of strong immune selection pressure occurring during the early decline from peak viremia. CD8+ T cell responses capable of recognizing these low frequency escape variants coincided with the selection and evolution of more effective secondary HLA-anchor escape mutations. Frequent, and in some cases rapid, reversion of transmitted mutations was also observed across the viral genome. When located within restricted CD8 epitopes these low frequency reverting mutations were sufficient to prime de novo responses to these epitopes, again illustrating the capacity of the immune response to recognize and respond to low frequency variants. More importantly, rapid viral escape from the most immunodominant CD8+ T cell responses coincided with plateauing of the initial viral load decline in this subject, suggestive of a potential link between maintenance of effective, dominant CD8 responses and the degree of early viremia reduction. We conclude that the early control of HIV-1 replication by immunodominant CD8+ T cell responses may be substantially influenced by rapid, low frequency viral adaptations not detected by conventional sequencing approaches, which warrants further investigation. These data support the critical need for vaccine-induced CD8+ T cell responses to target more highly constrained regions of the virus in order to ensure the maintenance of immunodominant CD8 responses and the sustained decline of early viremia.
The ability of HIV-1 and other highly variable pathogens to rapidly mutate to escape vaccine-induced immune responses represents a major hurdle to the development of effective vaccines to these highly persistent pathogens. Application of next-generation or deep sequencing technologies to the study of host pathogens could significantly improve our understanding of the mechanisms by which these pathogens subvert host immunity, and aid in the development of novel vaccines and therapeutics. Here, we developed a 454 deep sequencing approach to enable the sensitive detection of low-frequency viral variants across the entire HIV-1 genome. When applied to the acute phase of HIV-1 infection we observed that the majority of early, low frequency mutations represented viral adaptations to host cellular immune responses, evidence of strong host immunity developing during the early decline of peak viral load. Rapid viral escape from the most dominant immune responses however correlated with loss of this initial viral control, suggestive of the importance of mounting immune responses against more conserved regions of the virus. These data provide a greater understanding of the early evolutionary events subverting the ability of host immune responses to control early HIV-1 replication, yielding important insight into the design of more effective vaccine strategies.