Nucleotide sequence analyses of the env genes of two neurotropic variants of SIVmac239 were performed to determine whether molecular changes in these genes could be correlated with neurotropism. Biological characterization of virus from the infectious molecular clone of SIVmac239 had shown that it is highly lymphocyte-tropic and poorly macrophage-tropic. This virus failed to replicate in the brain after intracerebral inoculation, but passage of this virus in macaques resulted in development of vital variants that had acquired cell tropism for macrophages and were neurovirulent (D. P. Sharma, M. C. Zink, H. Anderson, R. J. Adams, J. E. Clements, S. V. Joag, and O. Narayan, J. Virol., 66, 3550-3556, 1992). The neurotropic virus SIVmac239/R71 was obtained from the brain of a monkey after the third in vivo passage of SIVmac239. Inoculation of this virus into another macaque leads to CNS disease and the isolation of another neurotropic virus SIVmac239/17E. The viral env sequences obtained by polymerase chain reaction amplification directly from DNA obtained from the brain of R71 and 17E macaques had a limited number of changes dispersed throughout the env gene when compared to the parental virus, SIVmac239. The most important finding was that there was a common set of nucleotide changes in the env gene of both R71 and 17E. This suggested that viruses containing these changes had a selective growth advantage in the brain and were the predominant species present in the central nervous system of macaques R71 and 17E. Analysis of individual clones containing the R71 env gene revealed that different env genes were present, but all had the changes that were conserved in both R71 and 17E but not present in the original lymphocyte-tropic parental virus, SIVmac239. Construction of an infectious recombinant virus containing the tat, rev, and env genes from 17E and the remainder of the genome from the parental virus SIVmac239 resulted in a virus that had the macrophage-tropism of 17E virus isolated from brain. This demonstrates that the env gene of 17E confers the cellular tropism of the virus on the parental virus, SIVmac239.
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