The envelope cytoplasmic tail of HIV-1 Subtype C contributes to poor replication capacity through low viral infectivity and cell-to-cell transmission.
The cytoplasmic tail (gp41CT) of the HIV-1 envelope (Env) mediates Env incorporation into virions and regulates Env intracellular trafficking. Little is known about the functional impact of variability in this domain. To address this issue, we compared the replication of recombinant virus pairs carrying the full Env (Env viruses) or the Env ectodomain fused to the gp41CT of NL4.3 (EnvEC viruses) (12 subtype C and 10 subtype B pairs) in primary CD4+ T-cells and monocyte-derived-macrophages (MDMs). In CD4+ T-cells, replication was as follows: B-EnvEC = B-Env>C-EnvEC>C-Env, indicating that the gp41CT of subtype C contributes to the low replicative capacity of this subtype. In MDMs, in contrast, replication capacity was comparable for all viruses regardless of subtype and of gp41CT. In CD4+ T-cells, viral entry, viral release and viral gene expression were similar. However, infectivity of free virions and cell-to-cell transmission of C-Env viruses released by CD4+ T-cells was lower, suggestive of lower Env incorporation into virions. Subtype C matrix only minimally rescued viral replication and failed to restore infectivity of free viruses and cell-to-cell transmission. Taken together, these results show that polymorphisms in the gp41CT contribute to viral replication capacity and suggest that the number of Env spikes per virion may vary across subtypes. These findings should be taken into consideration in the design of vaccines.