Extensive purifying selection acting on synonymous sites in HIV-1 Group M sequences

BACKGROUND: Positive selection pressure acting on protein-coding sequences is usually inferred when the rate of nonsynonymous substitution is greater than the synonymous rate. However, purifying selection acting directly on the nucleotide sequence can lower the synonymous substitution rate. This could result in false inference of positive selection because when synonymous changes at some sites are under purifying selection, the average synonymous rate is an underestimate of the neutral rate of evolution. Even though HIV-1 coding sequences contain a number of regions that function at the nucleotide level, and are thus likely to be affected by purifying selection, studies of positive selection assume that synonymous substitutions can be used to estimate the neutral rate of evolution. RESULTS: We modelled site-to-site variation in the synonymous substitution rate across coding regions of the HIV-1 genome. Synonymous substitution rates were found to vary significantly within and between genes. Surprisingly, regions of the genome that encode proteins in more than one frame had significantly higher synonymous substitution rates than regions coding in a single frame. We found evidence of strong purifying selection pressure affecting synonymous mutations in fourteen regions with known functions. These included an exonic splicing enhancer, the rev-responsive element, the poly-purine tract and a transcription factor binding site. A further five highly conserved regions were located within known functional domains. We also found four conserved regions located in env and vpu which have not been characterized previously. CONCLUSION: We provide the coordinates of genomic regions with markedly lower synonymous substitution rates, which are putatively under the influence of strong purifying selection pressure at the nucleotide level as well as regions encoding proteins in more than one frame. These regions should be excluded from studies of positive selection acting on HIV-1 coding regions.