To elucidate the evolutionary mechanisms of the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 gp120 envelope glycoprotein at the single-site level, the degree of amino acid variation and the numbers of synonymous and nonsynonymous substitutions were examined in 186 nucleotide sequences for gp120 (subtype B). Analyses of amino acid variabilities showed that the level of variability was very different from site to site in both conserved (C1 to C5) and variable (V1 to V5) regions previously assigned. To examine the relative importance of positive and negative selection for each amino acid position, the numbers of synonymous and nonsynonymous substitutions that occurred at each codon position were estimated by taking phylogenetic relationships into account. Among the 414 codon positions examined, we identified 33 positions where nonsynonymous substitutions were significantly predominant. These positions where positive selection may be operating, which we call putative positive selection (PS) sites, were found not only in the variable loops but also in the conserved regions (C1 to C4). In particular, we found seven PS sites at the surface positions of the α-helix (positions 335 to 347 in the C3 region) in the opposite face for CD4 binding. Furthermore, two PS sites in the C2 region and four PS sites in the C4 region were detected in the same face of the protein. The PS sites found in the C2, C3, and C4 regions were separated in the amino acid sequence but close together in the three- dimensional structure. This observation suggests the existence of discontinuous epitopes in the protein's surface including this α-helix, although the antigenicity of this area has not been reported yet.
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