Two HIV-1 accessory proteins, Vpu and Vif, are notoriously difficult to express autonomously in the absence of the viral Tat and Rev proteins. We examined whether the codon bias observed in the vpu and vif genes relative to highly expressed human genes contributes to the Rev dependence and low expression level outside the context of the viral genome. The entire vpu gene as well as the 5′ half of the vif gene were codon optimized and the resulting open reading frames (ORFs) (vphu and hvif, respectively) were cloned in autonomous expression vectors under the transcriptional control of the CMV promoter. Codon optimization efficiently removed the expression block observed in the native genes and allowed high levels of Rev- and Tat-independent expression of Vpu and Vif. Most of the higher protein levels detected are accounted for by enhanced steady-state levels of the mRNA encoding the optimized species. Nuclear run-on experiments show for the first time that codon optimization has no effect on the rate of transcriptional initiation or elongation of the vphu mRNA. Instead, optimization of the vpu gene was found to stabilize the vphu mRNA in the nucleus and enhance its export to the cytoplasm. This was achieved by allowing the optimized mRNA to use a new CRM1-independent nuclear export pathway. This work provides a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying the process of codon optimization and introduces novel tools to study the biological functions of the Vpu and Vif proteins independently of other viral proteins.
- Codon optimization
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