Nature Hot Topic

Old biopsy brings new insight to HIV-1 evolution

Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) diversified in west-central Africa long before the recognized AIDS pandemic, according to a genetics study published in this week’s issue of Nature.

The origin of the current AIDS pandemic has been a subject of great speculation since AIDS was first described in 1981. Now Michael Worobey from the University of Arizona, USA, and his international team has investigated a new source of ‘old’ genetic material that offers fresh insights into the evolution of pandemic AIDS viruses.

The team analyzed viral sequences from a paraffin-embedded lymph node biopsy specimen collected in 1960 from a woman in what is now Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. They compared this against a viral sequence from 1959, which is the oldest known HIV-1 case and the only other pre-1976 HIV-1 viral sequence available to date.

The team’s results suggest that these viruses evolved from a common ancestor circulating in the African population near the beginning of the twentieth century. They also suggest there is a link between rapid urbanization and the emergence of this area as an epicenter for the HIV/AIDS pandemic — with the rise of cities in this region contributing to the initial establishment and the early spread of HIV-1.

There are many more paraffin-embedded HIV-1-infected specimens in the archival banks of west-central African hospitals that could provide a vast source of clinical material for viral genetic analyses. Resurrecting more viral sequences from early African HIV-1 cases could offer further insights, because this virus evolves rapidly — up to a million times faster than that of animal DNA — substantial amounts of sequence change occur in a matter of decades, note Paul M. Sharp of the University of Edinburgh, UK, and Beatrice H. Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA, in a related News and Views article.

Also in this week’s issue of Nature, a Review article by Dan Barouch of the Harvard Medical School summarizes the challenges and prospects of prophylactic HIV-1 vaccines, and calls for a renewed and coordinated commitment to basic research, preclinical studies and clinical trials. A Commentary by Ruslan Medzhitov of Yale University and Dan Littman of New York University also supports the call for a rethink of HIV-vaccine development. Medzhitov and Littman suggest that, to date, immunology approaches have been less than scientific and would benefit from improving our understanding of the immune system.

Nature Volume 455 Issue 7213

Top Ten Highlights

Sign up for Nature Research e-alerts to get the lastest research in your inbox every week.

More Hot Topics

PrivacyMark System