Differences in replication fidelity, as well as mutator and antimutator strains, suggest that virus mutation rates are heritable and prone to natural selection. Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) has many distinct advantages for the study of mutation rate optimization given the wealth of structural and biochemical data on HIV-1 reverse transcriptase (RT) and mutants. In this study, we conducted parallel analyses of mutation rate and viral fitness. In particular, a panel of 10 RT mutants - most having drug resistance phenotypes - was analyzed for their effects on viral fidelity and fitness. Fidelity differences were measured using single-cycle vector assays, while fitness differences were identified using ex vivo head-to-head competition assays. As anticipated, virus mutants possessing either higher or lower fidelity had a corresponding loss in fitness. While the virus panel was not chosen randomly, it is interesting that it included more viruses possessing a mutator phenotype rather than viruses possessing an antimutator phenotype. These observations provide the first description of an interrelationship between HIV-1 fitness and mutation rate and support the conclusion that mutator and antimutator phenotypes correlate with reduced viral fitness. In addition, the findings here help support a model in which fidelity comes at a cost of replication kinetics and may help explain why retroviruses like HIV-1 and RNA viruses maintain replication fidelity near the extinction threshold.
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We thank Eric Arts and Michael Lobritz for reagents and technical advice pertaining to the fitness assay. We also acknowledge Michael Travasano, Scott Lunos, and Cavan Reilly for help with statistical analysis of the fitness differences and mutant frequency measures. This research was supported by NIH grant R01 GM56615 . M.J.D. was supported by NIH grant T32DA007097 , and R.H.H. was supported by NIH grant T32DE007288 .