Unveiling the early dynamics of the HIV-1 epidemic using archival viral genomes
Viral genome data are a major asset in characterizing epidemics, including the identification of key determinants of successful epidemic spread in a population. These determinants are still largely unresolved for one of the most devastating epidemics in human history, the AIDS pandemic caused by Human Immunodeficiency Virus 1 (HIV-1). Historical inferences based on contemporary genetic sequence data are inherently limited, despite the continuous advances in phylodynamic statistical tools. Now, Prof. Lemey (KU Leuven) has assembled a unique, invaluable and comprehensive library of archival samples (>10,000) collected between 1958 and 1983 from a wide range of central African locations, in which “fossil” HIV genetic sequences from the onset of the epidemic are waiting to be unlocked. While Prof. Lemey’s team at KU Leuven specializes in Bayesian phylogenetic statistical models, Prof. Worobey’s team from the partner institute (University of Arizona) are experts in characterizing viral genomes from challenging archival samples. The evolutionary geneticist Sophie Gryseels can now concretize this interdisciplinary collaboration with a mobile postdoctoral fellowship. The historical HIV sequences we aim to uncover will serve as invaluable calibration points to accurately characterize the spatial spread and sudden exponential growth phase in central Africa around the 1960’s, allowing to test competing hypotheses of the causes behind this crucial turning point in the HIV-1 pandemic.