Two different states of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 are apparent in the asymptomatic and late stages of infection. Important determinants associated with these two states have been found within the V3 loop of the viral Env protein. In this study, two large data sets of published V3 sequences were analyzed to identify patterns of sequence variability that would correspond to these two states of the virus. We were especially interested in the pattern of basic amino acid substitutions, since the presence of basic amino acids in V3 has been shown to change virus tropism in cell culture. Four features of the sequence heterogeneity in V3 were observed: (i) approximately 70% of all nonconservative basic substitutions occur at four positions in V3, and V3 sequences with a basic substitution in at least one of these four positions contain approximately 95% of all nonconservative basic substitutions; (ii) substitution patterns within V3 are influenced by the identity of the amino acid at position 25; (iii) sequence polymorphisms account for a significant fraction of uncharged amino acid substitutions at several positions in V3, and sequence heterogeneity other than these polymorphisms is most significant at two positions near the tip of V3; and (iv) sequence heterogeneity in V3 (in addition to the basic amino acid substitutions) is approximately twofold greater in V3 sequences that contain basic amino acid substitutions. By using this sequence analysis, we were able to identify distinct groups of V3 sequences in infected patients that appear to correspond to these two virus states. The identification of these discrete sequence patterns in vivo demonstrates how the V3 sequence can be used as a genetic marker for studying the two states of human immunodeficiency virus type 1
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