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Background: The impact of the products of the pol gene, specifically, reverse transcriptase (RT) on HIV-1 replication, evolution, and acquisition of drug resistance has been thoroughly characterized for subtype B. For subtype C, which accounts of almost 60% of HIV cases worldwide, much less is known. It has been reported that subtype C HIV-1 isolates have a lower replication capacity than B; however, the basis of these differences remains unclear.
Results: We analyzed the impact of the pol gene products from HIV-1 B and C subtypes on the maturation of HIV virions, accumulation of reverse transcription products, integration of viral DNA, frequency of point mutations in provirus and overall viral replication. Recombinant HIV-1 viruses of B and C subtypes comprising the pol fragments encoding protease, integrase and either the whole RT or a chimeric RT from different isolates of the C and B subtypes, were used for infection of cells expressing CXCR4 or CCR5 co-receptors. The viruses carrying different fragments of pol from the isolates of B and C subtypes did not reveal differences in Gag and GagPol processing and viral RNA incorporation into the virions. However, the presence of the whole RT from subtype C, or the chimeric RT containing either the polymerase or the connection and RNase H domains from C isolates, caused significantly slower viral replication regardless of B or C viral backbone. Subtype C RT carrying viruses displayed lower levels of accumulation of strong-stop cDNA in permeabilized virions during endogenous reverse transcription, and decreased accumulation of both strong-stop and positive strand reverse transcription products in infected cells and in isolated reverse transcription complexes. This decreased accumulation correlated with lower levels of viral DNA integration in cells infected with viruses carrying the whole RT or RT domains from subtype C isolates. The single viral genome assay analysis did not reveal significant differences in the frequency of point mutations between the RT from B or C subtypes.
Conclusions: These data suggest that the whole RT as well as distinct polymerase and connection-RNase H domains from subtype C HIV-1 confer a lower level of accumulation of reverse transcripts in the virions and reverse transcription complexes as compared to subtype B, resulting in a lower overall level of virus replication.