Elucidation of Early Evolution of HIV-1 Group M in the Congo Basin Using Computational Methods

The Congo Basin region is believed to be the site of the cross-species transmission event that yielded HIV-1 group M (HIV-1M). It is thus likely that the virus has been present and evolving in the region since that cross-species transmission. As HIV-1M was only discovered in the early 1980s, our directly observed record of the epidemic is largely limited to the past four decades. Nevertheless, by exploiting the genetic relatedness of contemporary HIV-1M sequences, phylogenetic methods provide a powerful framework for investigating simultaneously the evolutionary and epidemiologic history of the virus. Such an approach has been taken to find that the currently classified HIV-1 M subtypes and Circulating Recombinant Forms (CRFs) do not give a complete view of HIV-1 diversity. In addition, the currently identified major HIV-1M subtypes were likely genetically predisposed to becoming a major component of the present epidemic, even before the events that resulted in the global epidemic. Further efforts have identified statistically significant hot- and cold-spots of HIV-1M subtypes sequence inheritance in genomic regions of recombinant forms. In this review we provide ours and others recent findings on the emergence and spread of HIV-1M variants in the region, which have provided insights into the early evolution of this virus.