Letters to Nature

Nature 391, 594-597 (5 February 1998) | doi:10.1038/35400; Received 18 September 1997; Accepted 17 December 1997

An African HIV-1 sequence from 1959 and implications for the origin of the epidemic

Tuofu Zhu1,2, Bette T. Korber3,4, Andre J. Nahmias5, Edward Hooper6, Paul M. Sharp7 & David D. Ho1

  1. Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, The Rockefeller University, 455 First Avenue, New York, New York 10016, USA
  2. Theoretical Division, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico 87545, USA
  3. The Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501, USA
  4. Department of Pediatrics, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia 30303, USA
  5. PO Box 4087, Worthing BN14 7LQ, UK
  6. Department of Genetics, University of Nottingham, Queens Medical Centre, Nottingham NG7 2UH, UK
  7. Present address: University of Washington, Health Sciences Building, Room T239X, 1959 NE Pacific Avenue, Seattle, Washington DC 98195, USA.

Correspondence to: David D. Ho1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to D.D.H. (e-mail: Email: dho@adarc.org).

There is considerable genetic diversity among viruses of different subtypes (designated A to J) in the major group of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), the form of HIV that is dominant in the global epidemic1, 2, 3. If available, HIV-1 sequences pre-dating the recognition of AIDS could be crucial in defining the time of origin and the subsequent evolution of these viruses in humans. The oldest known case of HIV-1 infection was reported to be that of a sailor from Manchester who died of an AIDS-like illness in 1959 (refs 4–6); however, the authenticity of this case has not been confirmed7,8. Genetic analysis of sequences from clinical materials obtained from 1971 to 1976 from members of a Norwegian family infected earlier than 1971 showed that they carried viruses of the HIV-1 outlier group9,10, a variant form that is mainly restricted to West Africa1. Here we report the amplification and characterization of viral sequences from a 1959 African plasma sample that was previously found to be HIV-1 seropositive11. Multiple phylogenetic analyses not only authenticate this case as the oldest known HIV-1 infection, but also place its viral sequence near the ancestral node of subtypes B and D in the major group, indicating that these HIV-1 subtypes, and perhaps all major-group viruses, may have evolved from a single introduction into the African population not long before 1959.