An EIAV field isolate reveals much higher levels of subtype variability than currently reported for the equine lentivirus family
© Craigo et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2009
Received: 28 July 2009
Accepted: 20 October 2009
Published: 20 October 2009
Equine infectious anemia virus (EIAV), a lentivirus that infects horses, has been utilized as an animal model for the study of HIV. Furthermore, the disease associated with the equine lentivirus poses a significant challenge to veterinary medicine around the world. As with all lentiviruses, EIAV has been shown to have a high propensity for genomic sequence and antigenic variation, especially in its envelope (Env) proteins. Recent studies have demonstrated Env variation to be a major determinant of vaccine efficacy, emphasizing the importance of defining natural variation among field isolates of EIAV. To date, however, published EIAV sequences have been reported only for cell-adapted strains of virus, predominantly derived from a single primary virus isolate, EIAVWyoming (EIAVWY).
We present here the first characterization of the Env protein of a natural primary isolate from Pennsylvania (EIAVPA) since the widely utilized and referenced EIAVWY strain. The data demonstrated that the level of EIAVPA Env amino acid sequence variation, approximately 40% as compared to EIAVWY, is much greater than current perceptions or published reports of natural EIAV variation between field isolates. This variation did not appear to give rise to changes in the predicted secondary structure of the proteins. While the EIAVPA Env was serologically cross reactive with the Env proteins of the cell-adapted reference strain, EIAVPV (derivative of EIAVWY), the two variant Envs were shown to lack any cross neutralization by immune serum from horses infected with the respective virus strains.
Taking into account the significance of serum neutralization to universal vaccine efficacy, these findings are crucial considerations towards successful EIAV vaccine development and the potential inclusion of field isolate Envs in vaccine candidates.
Equine Infectious Anemia Virus (EIAV), a macrophage-tropic lentivirus of the family Retroviridae, causes a persistent and potentially fatal infection in equids and a chronic disseminated disease that is of worldwide importance in veterinary medicine (reviewed in Craigo, et al. 2008 and Leroux et al. 2004). Natural and experimental infection with EIAV results in a rapid and dynamic disease process that differs markedly from the slowly progressive degenerative diseases associated with other lentiviral infections including HIV-1 infection of humans. EIAV infection can be transmitted via iatrogenic sources such as contaminated syringe needles, but is predominantly spread by blood-feeding insect vectors (mainly horseflies and deerflies). Hence, disease is most problematic in regions with warmer climates [1, 2]. The actual number of infected animals in various geographical regions is not precisely known due to a lack of routine testing. Since its inception, testing in the United States has generally increased on an annual basis , but the number of animals tested still represents a small proportion of the total equine population.
EIA disease in equids emerges as a vigorous progression through three stages: acute, chronic, and inapparent. The acute and chronic stages of EIA are defined by episodes of clinical disease that are triggered by waves of viremia and distinguished by fever, anemia, thrombocytopenia, edema, diarrhea, lethargy, and various wasting signs. By 8-12 months post-infection, horses typically progress to life-long (long-term) inapparent carriers, presumably due to the development of enduring protective host immunity . These inapparent carriers, however, remain infected for life with the maintenance of markedly different levels of steady state virus replication in monocyte-rich tissue reservoirs [5–7]. Stress or immune suppression of EIAV inapparent carriers can induce an increase in viral replication and potentially a recrudescence of disease [7–9]. Thus, EIAV offers a unique model for characterizing natural immunologic control of lentivirus replication and disease, for elucidating the nature and role of viral variation in persistence and pathogenesis, and ultimately for developing and modeling lentiviral vaccines.
Among virulent lentiviruses, EIAV is unique in that greater than 90% of infected horses progress from a chronic disease state to an inapparent carrier stage despite aggressive virus replication and associated rapid antigenic variation. However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) along with state animal regulatory agencies require euthanasia or strict lifelong quarantine for EIAV seropositive horses. Within the US, each state drafts its own requirements with reference to EIAV and the movement of horses as well as changes in ownership of horses. All seropositive horses must be registered with the state veterinarians and the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) office [3, 10]. Given EIAV's role as an animal model for HIV vaccine studies, the associated costs of equine testing, and the general issue of equine health, the development of an effective EIAV vaccine holds a multifaceted significance. Like all lentiviruses, the roadblock to effective vaccine development for EIAV is the high level of antigenic variation that occurs during viral replication throughout all stages of infection and disease.
Studies of EIAV variation during persistent infection in experimentally infected equids have clearly identified characteristic changes in envelope sequences that alter viral antigenic properties, evidently as a result of immune selection [11–14]. The predominant site of EIAV variation during persistent infection is the gp90 surface envelope glycoprotein. The pattern of gp90 nucleotide and amino acid variation has been analyzed to define distinct conserved and variable protein domains [13, 15–17] as observed with other animal and human lentiviruses [13, 18–21]. Variation of the EIAV envelope gene has therefore served as a distinct marker for analysis of viral population evolution and can hence be utilized as a marker of variant isolates.
Despite the worldwide prevalence of EIAV infections, experimental studies to date have centered on relatively few viral isolates. Analyses of viral pathogenesis have essentially focused on a strain of EIAV termed Wyoming (isolated in North America) and its derivatives while a minority of reported studies have utilized a Chinese variant. In fact, in the last thirty years, 97% of published studies on EIAV natural isolates have been based on the Wyoming isolate directly, or on in vivo/in vitro derivatives of this strain (based on a PubMed search on EIAV natural isolates or experimental derivatives of those isolates within the last 30 years: approximately 548 publications; the percentage of the overall number published for each "strain" was calculated). The variant nature of the antigenicity of EIAV which has thus far obstructed successful vaccine development mandates that a larger pool of viral strains be analyzed both for consideration of pathogenesis and determination of immune correlates of protection.
In the current study, we report on the characterization of the Env genomic sequences of an EIAV field isolate recovered from a long-term inapparent carrier in the state of Pennsylvania in the United States. The observed variation of the EIAVPA Env compared to published EIAV isolates indicates that the current understanding of genomic divergence is greatly underestimated. Further, functional analyses of how the gp90 variation affected antigenic specificity demonstrated that the observed genomic alterations rendered the isolate neutralization distinct to immune sera from horses experimentally infected with a Wyoming-derived virus strain (EIAVPV [22–24]). The observations of extensive Env variation and neutralization differences in a primary EIAV isolate indicate the need for EIAV vaccine strategies that can elicit enduring broadly reactive host immune responses to protect against diverse strains of virus.
Recovery of a primary EIAV field isolate
To characterize EIAV viral populations of naturally infected horses, we contacted the local USDA office for information on regionally identified EIAV positive carriers that were under quarantine. They identified a 25-year-old Coggins positive horse that had been infected for 15 years, but had been clinically inapparent for several years. Analysis of the serum from this donor horse indicated an antibody titer of 104 in ELISA assays against the EIAVPV reference strain, consistent with the seropositive results also observed in AGID diagnostic assays (data not shown). Quantitative RT-PCR analysis of plasma from the donor horse revealed a viral load in the periphery of approximately 5 × 103 copies of RNA/ml plasma. To characterize the viral population of the field isolate, EIAVPA, viral RNA was pelleted from the plasma. We designed consensus primers (see additional file 1: Table S1) to reverse transcribe and PCR amplify the EIAVPA genome based on currently available sequences in the Genbank repository. RT-PCR amplification of viral RNA failed to yield products for cloning and sequencing. It has previously been demonstrated that a blood transfer performed between an inapparent carrier and an EIAV naïve equine results in febrile EIA disease . We also previously demonstrated that a majority of the viral quasispecies found in the first febrile episode reflect the same genomic sequence as the infectious inoculum [11–13]. Taken together, we chose to characterize the EIAVPA population of the inapparent carrier via a plasma transfer between the naturally infected animal and an EIAV naïve recipient horse.
Clinical and virological profile of plasma transfer recipient #9807
Isolation, cloning, and sequencing of EIAVPAclones
To characterize the viral quasispecies of EIAVPA, we isolated viral RNA from plasma taken during the acute episode, or 74 days post infection (DPI), in the recipient horse. The majority of EIAV genomic variation occurs in the 3' half of the viral RNA that encodes the envelope, rev, and the long terminal repeat (LTR) [2, 4, 7]. Thus, utilizing the consensus primers described in 3.1, we RT-PCR amplified the entire 3' half (~3 Kb) of the genome. The purified fragments were cloned, and a total of 18 positive clones subjected to sequence analysis.
Population analyses of EIAVPAquasispecies
Characterization of EIAVPAenvelope antigenic properties
We have reported a moderately slow development of serum neutralizing antibodies over a several month period following experimental EIAV infection of horses, with average maximum neutralization titers averaging 1:300 [5, 27]. To examine the ability of the EIAVPA strain to elicit homologous and heterologous serum neutralizing antibodies, we assayed the ability of serum samples taken from horse #9807 (428 DPI) and the original Pennsylvanian inapparent carrier (two months post transfer to #9807) to neutralize EIAVPA and EIAVPV gp90 species, as presented on otherwise common proviral constructs (Fig. 4B). The neutralization activity of a reference immune serum taken from a horse experimentally infected with EIAVPV (1,574 DPI) was assayed in parallel as a control. Interestingly, immune sera from the experimentally EIAVPA and the EIAVPV infected horses were able to neutralize only virus containing the homologous virus gp90; there was no detectable neutralization of the virus containing the heterologous gp90 species. In contrast, however, the immune serum from the naturally infected inapparent carrier displayed neutralization activity against both the EIAVPA (1:200 titer) and EIAVPV (1:55 titer) gp90 Env species. Two-way ANOVA analyses of the neutralization results indicate a significant difference between the ability of the inapparent carrier serum to neutralize the two different gp90 Env proteins (P < 0.0001).
EIAV in addition to being an animal model for HIV/AIDS studies is a potentially fatal and economically significant infectious disease of equines found in populations of horses worldwide. We have thoroughly explored the evolution of Wyoming-derivative EIAV strains [11–14, 29–35] and investigated in detail EIAV interactions with the immune system [5, 28, 36] as well as mechanisms of protection towards the development of a vaccine [28, 36–43]. Vaccine development is essential to the global control of EIA. A common problem to all lentiviral vaccine development is the obstacle of viral evolution and more specifically viral Envelope variation and diversity.
To address this problem of Env variation and vaccine efficacy, it is essential to develop a more detailed characterization of the natural level of variation in the primary protein conferring vaccine protection, gp90. The overall level of envelope divergence observed for other common lentiviruses such as the small ruminant lentiviruses (SRLV), FIV, SIV and HIV have averaged between 10-35% [44–51]. Present understanding of the variation of EIAV has been based on a very limited number of natural field isolates. The current study of the EIAVPA isolate represents the first characterization of the Env protein of a natural primary isolate. The data reveal a much greater extent of Env variation than previously deduced from published Env sequences from a limited number of reference viral strains, all cell-adapted. The observed variation of the EIAVPA inapparent carrier population was very similar to what we have recognized in inapparent carriers from experimental infections. The level of diversity was at the same average level (data not shown) and the included phenotypic changes of a similar nature to previously observed evolution in experimental infections. While the largest amount of variation previously reported among published Env sequences indicated a maximum divergence of up to 13% variation [11, 12], the EIAVPA gp90 sequence reveals a divergence of about 40% from EIAVPV and other published Env sequences. In addition to the presumed effects of this extent of Env variation on vaccine development, it is important to note that the EIAVPA gp90 sequence is derived from a primary virus isolate that has never been passaged in cell culture. Thus it may be assumed that the EIAVPA Env species may in fact be more representative of natural Env populations than the currently published Env species that are derived from virus isolated by cell culture. In this regard, the EIAVPA may be considered a better candidate for vaccine development compared to other cell adapted strains of EIAV.
Recently we published a report detailing the specific affects of envelope sequence variation on vaccine protection . In that study we identified for the first time a significant, inverse, linear correlation between vaccine efficacy and increasing divergence of the challenge virus gp90 compared to the vaccine virus gp90 protein. The vaccine study demonstrated approximately 100% protection of immunized horses from disease after challenge by virus with a homologous gp90, but only 50% protection against challenge by virus with an Env that was 13% divergent from the vaccine strain. The calculated linear relationship predicted a complete lack of protection of immunized horses from disease upon challenge with a virus gp90 that is 23% divergent from the vaccine strain. Thus, these data suggest that the 40% divergence observed with the EIAVPA strain would present a substantial obstacle to the development of a broadly protective vaccine against EIA.
The extensive divergence observed between the EIAVPA and EIAVPV Env would predict differences in immunogenicity and antigenicity, including neutralization sensitivity. The current data indeed indicated distinct neutralization specificities for the two variant Env species. However, the current immune assays also indicated a substantial amount of cross reactive serum antibody as measured by ELISA assays, indicating common antibody epitopes in the variant Env proteins, despite the 40% divergence in gp90 amino acid sequences (Fig. 4A). Why this antibody cross-reactivity did not confer neutralization of variant infectious viruses remains to be determined by more rigorous characterization of the neutralization epitopes of the Env protein and the effects of sequence variation on antibody binding to and inactivation of virions.
It is of interest to note that only the immune serum from the long-term inapparent carrier displayed significant neutralization activity against both the EIAVPA and EIAVPV Env species (Fig. 4B). Since this immune serum reflects at least 25 years of persistent EIAV infection, it is possible that the broad neutralization activity is due to a maturation of antibody responses to constantly changing EIAV populations with variant Env quasispecies over this time period. While the mechanism of this cross neutralization is uncertain, it may be attributed to the collection of antibody responses to immuno-dominant type specific variable domains of the viral gp90 protein or alternatively to the slowly progressive development of antibody to immuno-recessive conserved domains of gp90. Experimental differentiation between these alternative mechanisms will provide important fundamental information relevant to the design of optimal Env protein for vaccine development.
The ability of the immune serum from the long-term inapparent carrier to ultimately neutralize viruses expressing either the EIAVPV and EIAVPA gp90 protein species indicates that it is possible for the horse immune system to develop broadly neutralizing serum antibodies. Based on this observation, it will now be possible to experimentally identify the specific Env sequences that are reactive with cross-neutralizing antibodies and that may be used in vaccines to develop enduring broadly reactive antibody responses. Whether we can incorporate this new EIAVPA sequence information into an immunogen that can confer the level of protection observed in long-term infected animals such as the Pennsylvania animal is the challenge to vaccine development and remains to be seen. What is definite is that additional field isolates need to be evaluated in order to develop EIAV vaccines that have a chance of being broadly protective to EIAV infection.
Identification of a natural EIAV inapparent carrier
The USDA local office (Allegheny County, Pennsylvania) identified a naturally infected, clinically inapparent, EIAV-positive horse. The horse had been EIAV seropositive for approximately 15 years at the time of sampling, as determined by repeated serum testing in the present USDA reference AGID diagnostic assay . Per Pennsylvania statutes and regulations, the horse was maintained in isolation and was under the surveillance of the local USDA Office with annual EIAV retesting. Under the supervision of the local USDA veterinarian, 500 ml of whole blood was drawn from this inapparent carrier by venipuncture into an ACD vacuum bottle. Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), plasma, and sera were collected and stored as previously described .
Attaining an EIAV field isolate
Initial attempts to amplify and clone EIAV from the plasma of the inapparent carrier yielded insufficient levels of viral genomic PCR products (data not shown), probably due to a very low level of viremia at the time of isolation . We have previously demonstrated that the viral population associated with the initial febrile episode in an experimentally infected horse fundamentally represents the species present in the infectious inoculum [11–13] and provides a much higher viral level to obtain samples for analysis. Thus, we transferred plasma from the inapparent carrier to a naïve recipient horse to amplify the viral quasispecies for subsequent isolation and characterization.
Experimental infection of naïve horses
An outbred, mixed-breed naïve horse (#9807) was infected with the Pennsylvanian EIAV (EIAVPA) field isolate by transferring 5 ml of infectious plasma from the identified naturally infected donor animal. The animal was monitored daily and maintained as described previously [13, 14]. Platelet numbers were determined using the Unopette microcollection system (Becton Dickinson, Rutherford, N.J.). Clinical EIA (fever) episodes were determined on the basis of rectal temperature and platelet count in combination (rectal temperature > 39°C; platelet number < 100,000/μl of whole blood) with the presence of infectious plasma virus [2, 7, 13, 14]. Samples of whole blood, serum, and plasma were collected weekly and daily during fever episodes. Plasma samples were stored at -80°C until used to determine plasma viral RNA level and to perform genetic analysis of viral RNA. Serum samples were stored at -20°C until being tested for antibody reactivity.
Field isolate viral RNA purification and amplification
Viral RNA was extracted as described previously [12, 13, 41]from plasma taken during the acute disease episode in the recipient horse at 74 DPI. Reverse transcription of 2 to 5 μl of purified viral RNA was performed with the SuperScriptII PreAmplification System (GibcoBRL, Rockville, MD) as previously described . Multiple nested amplifications of the 3' half of the genome were performed as reported  using the Elongase mix (Gibco BRL, Rockville, MD). Primers for primary and nested amplifications are detailed in additional file 1, Table S1. PCR products were visualized on a 1% agarose gel prior to purification and cloning.
Quantitative Viral RNA determinations
Plasma samples were analyzed for the levels of viral RNA per milliliter of plasma using a previously described quantitative real-time multiplex RT-PCR assay based on gag-specific amplification primers . The standard RNA curve was linear in the range of 101 molecules as a lower limit and 108 molecules as an upper limit.
Cloning and Sequencing
Several independent RT-PCR products (3 independent RT reactions and 8 independent nested PCR reactions) were generated (refer to 2.2.2), gel-purified using Qiagen's Qiaex (Valencia, CA), and cloned individually into the pCR2.1-TOPO® vector (Invitrogen, Carlsbad, CA). Individual clones were screened by PCR. Positive colonies were consequently grown, plasmid DNA was extracted, and clones automatically sequenced (Applied Biosystems, Foster City, CA) using internal EIAV primers (see additional file 1, Table S1). DNA sequences were resolved with an ABI Prism 373 DNA sequencer (Applied Biosystems, Foster City, CA).
Sequences were assembled and error checked using GeneJockey II (Biosoft, Cambridge, UK). Nucleotide and deduced amino acid sequences from each clone were aligned using the ClustalW multiple sequence alignment program from the GCG Wisconsin software package and edited manually when necessary. Alignments were performed for each genomic region with the reference strains: Wyoming, Wyoming derivative strains EIAVPV and EIAVWSU5, and the Chinese vaccine strain. The amino acid divergence calculations were determined using the Kimura distance correction.
Distance analyses were conducted using Distance software as implemented in the GCG Wisconsin software package . Phylogenetic analyses of sequences were constructed by the neighbor-joining method with the optimality criterion set to distance as measured in PAUP . Statistical significance of branchings and clustering were assessed by bootstrap re-sampling of 1000 pseudoreplicates on the complete data set represented in a 75% majority-rule consensus tree. The tree was edited for presentation using Treeview68 K version 1.5.
All sequences have been submitted to GenBank. Nucleotide accession numbers are GBQ855742-GBQ855758.
Construction and production of EIAVPAgp90
To compare the neutralization properties of the EIAVPA envelope to those of the EIAVPV, we generated a chimeric clone in which the gp90 of the representative predominant EIAVPA clone (associated with the first disease cycle) was substituted into the proviral backbone of our reference EIAVUK3 molecular clone  utilizing standard molecular biology techniques . Briefly, the gp90 gene of clone 2 from the PA field isolates derived from horse #9807 was digested with PasI and BtsI. The purified digestion product was ligated into the EIAVUK3 backbone, which had also been digested with BtsI and Pas I (partial digestion with PasI). Clones were screened by sequencing using internal EIAV primers. Chimeric virus (EIAVPAgp90) was produced by transfecting a 4-μg sample of purified DNA from the chimeric proviral clone into 105 fetal equine kidney (FEK) cells as specified by the manufacturer of the GenePorter Transfection kit (GTS, San Diego, Calif.). The number of infectious units per ml of supernatants from transfected FEK cell cultures was then determined in a standardized infectious-center assay that uses a cell-based enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay detection system to study FEK cells .
Detection of serum antibody reactivity to the EIAV capsid protein p26 was conducted using the ViraCHEK®/EIA kit per the manufacturer's instructions (Synbiotics Laboratory, Via Frontera, San Diego, CA). Serum samples were also evaluated for seroreactivity by the standard Coggins AGID diagnostic assay for EIA. Serum IgG antibody reactivity to EIAV envelope glycoproteins was assayed quantitatively (end point titer) using our standard concanavalin A (ConA) ELISA procedures . Virus neutralizing activity to EIAVPV [22–24] and EIAVPAgp90 (refer to 2.6) mediated by immune sera was assessed in an indirect cell-ELISA based infectious center assay using a constant amount of infectious virus and sequential 2-fold dilutions of serum [27, 58]. Statistical significance was calculated using GraphPad software (GraphPad software Inc., LaJolla, CA.).
We thank John Cardamone for his excellent technical assistance in DNA sequencing. The authors would also like to thank Jonathan D. Steckbeck for editing the manuscript. This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health grant number R01 AI 25850, by funds from the Lucille P. Markey Charitable Trust and the Kentucky Agricultural Experimental Station, and by a grant from the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center through the NIH National Center for Research Resources, resource grant 2 P41 RR06009.
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