HIV-1 is spread by cell-free virions and by cell-cell viral transfer. We asked whether the structure and function of a broad neutralizing antibody (bNAb) epitope, the membrane-proximal ectodomain region (MPER) of the viral gp41 transmembrane glycoprotein, differ in cell-free and cell-cell transmitted viruses and whether this difference could be related to Ab neutralization sensitivity. Whereas cell-free viruses bearing W666A and I675A substitutions in the MPER lacked infectivity, cell-associated mutant viruses were able to initiate robust spreading infection. Infectivity was restored to cell-free viruses by additional substitutions in the cytoplasmic tail (CT) of gp41 known to disrupt interactions with the viral matrix protein. We observed contrasting effects on cell-free virus infectivity when W666A was introduced to two transmitted/founder isolates, but both mutants could still mediate cell-cell spread. Domain swapping indicated that the disparate W666A phenotypes of the cell-free transmitted/founder viruses are controlled by sequences in variable regions 1, 2, and 4 of gp120. The sequential passaging of an MPER mutant (W672A) in peripheral blood mononuclear cells enabled selection of viral revertants with loss-of-glycan suppressor mutations in variable region 1, suggesting a functional interaction between variable region 1 and the MPER. An MPER-directed bNAb neutralized cell-free virus but not cell-cell viral spread. Our results suggest that the MPER of cell-cell-transmitted virions has a malleable structure that tolerates mutagenic disruption, but is not accessible to bNAbs. In cell-free virions, interactions mediated by the CT impose an alternative MPER structure that is less tolerant of mutagenic alteration and is efficiently targeted by bNAbs.
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This work was supported by grants from The National Health and Medical Research
Council of Australia to PP (1070890, 1125822) and HED (1041897), https://www.nhmrc.gov.au, The Australian Centre for HIV and Hepatitis Virology Research to PP, http://www.ach2.org.au/ivrn. VGSN,AB-M, AEL and HADK were supported by Australian Postgraduate Awards (www.education.gov.au/australianpostgraduateawards).