Link to Pubmed [PMID] – 20881047
J. Virol. 2010 Dec;84(24):12675-82
Many viruses, including retroviruses, undergo frequent recombination, a process which can increase their rate of adaptive evolution. In the case of HIV, recombination has been responsible for the generation of numerous intersubtype recombinant variants with epidemiological importance in the AIDS pandemic. Although it is known that fragments of genetic material do not combine randomly during the generation of recombinant viruses, the mechanisms that lead to preferential recombination at specific sites are not fully understood. Here we reanalyze recent independent data defining (i) the structure of a complete HIV-1 RNA genome and (ii) favorable sites for recombination. We show that in the absence of selection acting on recombinant genomes, regions harboring RNA structures in the NL4-3 model strain are strongly predictive of recombination breakpoints in the HIV-1 env genes of primary isolates. In addition, we found that breakpoints within recombinant HIV-1 genomes sampled from human populations, which have been acted upon extensively by natural selection, also colocalize with RNA structures. Critically, junctions between genes are enriched in structured RNA elements and are also preferred sites for generating functional recombinant forms. These data suggest that RNA structure-mediated recombination allows the virus to exchange intact genes rather than arbitrary subgene fragments, which is likely to increase the overall viability and replication success of the recombinant HIV progeny.