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J Virol. 2007 Oct;81(19):10625-35. Epub 2007 Jul 18.

Unequal evolutionary rates in the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) pandemic: the evolutionary rate of HIV-1 slows down when the epidemic rate increases.

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Department of Virology, Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control, Solna, Sweden.


HIV-1 sequences in intravenous drug user (IDU) networks are highly homogenous even after several years, while this is not observed in most sexual epidemics. To address this disparity, we examined the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) evolutionary rate on the population level for IDU and heterosexual transmissions. All available HIV-1 env V3 sequences from IDU outbreaks and heterosexual epidemics with known sampling dates were collected from the Los Alamos HIV sequence database. Evolutionary rates were calculated using phylogenetic trees with a t test root optimization of dated samples. The evolutionary rate of HIV-1 subtype A1 was found to be 8.4 times lower in fast spread among IDUs in the former Soviet Union (FSU) than in slow spread among heterosexual individuals in Africa. Mixed epidemics (IDU and heterosexual) showed intermediate evolutionary rates, indicating a combination of fast- and slow-spread patterns. Hence, if transmissions occur repeatedly during the initial stage of host infection, before selective pressures of the immune system have much impact, the rate of HIV-1 evolution on the population level will decrease. Conversely, in slow spread, where HIV-1 evolves under the pressure of the immune system before a donor infects a recipient, the virus evolution at the population level will increase. Epidemiological modeling confirmed that the evolutionary rate of HIV-1 depends on the rate of spread and predicted that the HIV-1 evolutionary rate in a fast-spreading epidemic, e.g., for IDUs in the FSU, will increase as the population becomes saturated with infections and the virus starts to spread to other risk groups.

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