The equine infectious anemia virus (EIAV) is a lentivirus of the Retrovirus family, which causes persistent infection in horses often characterized by recurrent episodes of high fever. It has a similar morphology and life cycle to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Its transmembrane glycoprotein, gp45 (analogous to gp41 in HIV), mediates membrane fusion during the infection. EIAV is the first member of the lentiviruses for which an effective vaccine has been successfully developed. The attenuated vaccine strain, FDDV, has been produced from a pathogenic strain by a series of passages. We have previously reported that a V/I505T mutation in gp45, in combination with other mutations in gp90, may potentially contribute to the success of the vaccine strain.
We found that the V/I505T mutation in gp45 was located in a highly conserved d position within the heptad repeat, which protruded into a 3-fold symmetry axis within the six-helix bundle. Our crystal structure analyses revealed a shift of a hydrophobic to hydrophilic interaction due to this specific mutation, and further biochemical and virological studies confirmed that the mutation reduced the overall stability of the six-helix bundle in post-fusion conformation. Moreover, we found that altering the temperatures drastically affected the virus sensitivity.
Our high-resolution crystal structures of gp45 from wild-type and the attenuated vaccine EIAV strains exhibited high conservation between the gp45/gp41 structures of lentiviruses. In addition, a hydrophobic to hydrophilic interaction change in the EIAV vaccine strain was found to modulate the stability and thermal-sensitivity of the overall gp45 structure. Our observations suggest that lowering the stability of the six-helix bundle (post-fusion), which stabilizes the pre-fusion conformation, might be one of the reasons of acquired dominance for FDDV in viral attenuation.