Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1) is, like most pathogens, under selective pressure to escape the immune system of its host. In particular, HIV-1 can avoid recognition by cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) by altering the binding affinity of viral peptides to human leukocyte antigen (HLA) molecules, the role of which is to present those peptides to the immune system. It is generally assumed that HLA escape mutations carry a replicative fitness cost, but these costs have not been quantified. In this study, we assess the replicative cost of mutations which are likely to escape presentation by HLA molecules in the region of HIV-1 protease and reverse transcriptase. Specifically, we combine computational approaches for prediction of in vitro replicative fitness and peptide binding affinity to HLA molecules. We find that mutations which impair binding to HLA-A molecules tend to have lower in vitro replicative fitness than mutations which do not impair binding to HLA-A molecules, suggesting that HLA-A escape mutations carry higher fitness costs than non-escape mutations. We argue that the association between fitness and HLA-A binding impairment is probably due to an intrinsic cost of escape from HLA-A molecules, and these costs are particularly strong for HLA-A alleles associated with efficient virus control. Counter-intuitively, we do not observe a significant effect in the case of HLA-B, but, as discussed, this does not argue against the relevance of HLA-B in virus control. Overall, this article points to the intriguing possibility that HLA-A molecules preferentially target more conserved regions of HIV-1, emphasizing the importance of HLA-A genes in the evolution of HIV-1 and RNA viruses in general.
Our immune system can recognize and kill virus-infected cells by distinguishing between self and virus-derived protein fragments, called peptides, displayed on the surface of each cell. One requirement for a successful recognition is that those peptides bind to the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) class I molecules, which present them to the immune system. As a counter-strategy, human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) can acquire mutations that prevent this binding, thereby helping the virus to escape the surveillance of T-lymphocytes. It is likely that the virus pays a replicative cost for such escape mutations, but the magnitude of this cost has remained elusive. Here, we quantified this fitness cost in HIV-1 protease and reverse transcriptase by combining two computational systems biology approaches: one for prediction of in vitro replicative fitness, and one for the prediction of the efficiency of peptide binding to HLA. We found that in viral proteins targeted by HLA-A molecules, mutations which disrupt binding to those molecules carry a lower replicative fitness than mutations which do not have such an effect. We argue that these results are consistent with the hypothesis that our immune systems might have evolved to target genetic regions of RNA viruses which are costly for the pathogen to alter.