HIV-1 is known to show a high degree of genetic diversity, which may have major implications for disease pathogenesis and prevention. If every divergent isolate represented a distinct serotype, then effective vaccination might be impossible. However, using a sensitive new plaque-forming assay for HIV-1, we have found that most infected patients make neutralizing antibodies, predominantly to a group-specific epitope shared among three highly divergent isolates. This epitope persists among divergent isolates and rarely mutates, despite the rapid overall mutation rate of HIV-1, suggesting that it may participate in an essential viral function. These findings, plus the rarity of reinfections among these patients, suggest that HIV-1 may be more susceptible to a vaccine strategy based on a group-specific neutralizing epitope than was previously suspected.

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