Background: The use of next generation sequencing (NGS) to examine circulating HIV env variants has been limited due to env’s length (2.6 kb), extensive indel polymorphism, GC deficiency, and long homopolymeric regions. We developed and standardized protocols for isolation, RT-PCR amplification, single molecule real-time (SMRT) sequencing, and haplotype analysis of circulating HIV-1 env variants to evaluate viral diversity in primary infection. Methodology: HIV RNA was extracted from 7 blood plasma samples (1 mL) collected from 5 subjects (one individual sampled and sequenced at 3 time points) in the San Diego Primary Infection Cohort between 3-33 months from their estimated date of infection (EDI). Median viral load per sample was 50,118 HIV RNA copies/mL (range: 22,387-446,683). Full-length (3.2 kb) env amplicons were constructed into SMRTbell templates without shearing, and sequenced on the PacBio RS II using P4/C2 chemistry and 180 minute movie collection without stage start. To examine viral diversity in each sample, we determined haplotypes by clustering circular consensus sequences (CCS), and reconstructing a cluster consensus sequence using a partial order alignment approach. We measured sample diversity both as the mean pairwise distance among reads, and the fraction of reads containing indel polymorphisms. Results: We collected a median of 8,775 CCS reads per SMRT Cell (range: 4243-12234). A median of 7 haplotypes per subject (range: 1-55) were inferred at baseline. For the one subject with longitudinal samples analyzed, we observed an increasing number of distinct haplotypes (8 to 55 haplotypes over the course of 30 months), and an increasing mean pairwise distance among reads (from 0.8% to 1.6%, Tamura-Nei 93). We also observed significant indel polymorphism, with 16% of reads from one sample later in infection (33 months post-EDI) exhibiting deletions of more than 10% of env with respect to the reference strain, HXB2. Conclusions: This study developed a standardized NGS procedure (PacBio SMRT) to deep sequence full-length HIV RNA env variants from the circulating viral population, achieving good coverage, confirming low env diversity during primary infection that increased over time, and revealing significant indel polymorphism that highlights structural variation as important to env evolution. The long, accurate reads greatly simplified downstream bioinformatics analyses, especially haplotype phasing, increasing our confidence in the results. The sequencing methodology and analysis tools developed here could be successfully applied to any area for which full-length HIV env analysis would be useful.
Organization: University of California, San Diego