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Estimating time since infection in early homogeneous HIV-1 samples using a poisson model

Elena E Giorgi12*, Bob Funkhouser1, Gayathri Athreya13, Alan S Perelson1, Bette T Korber14 and Tanmoy Bhattacharya14*

Author Affiliations

1 Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, NM 87545, USA

2 Univeristy of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01002, USA

3 University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA

4 The Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2010, 11:532  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-11-532

Published: 25 October 2010



The occurrence of a genetic bottleneck in HIV sexual or mother-to-infant transmission has been well documented. This results in a majority of new infections being homogeneous, i.e., initiated by a single genetic strain. Early after infection, prior to the onset of the host immune response, the viral population grows exponentially. In this simple setting, an approach for estimating evolutionary and demographic parameters based on comparison of diversity measures is a feasible alternative to the existing Bayesian methods (e.g., BEAST), which are instead based on the simulation of genealogies.


We have devised a web tool that analyzes genetic diversity in acutely infected HIV-1 patients by comparing it to a model of neutral growth. More specifically, we consider a homogeneous infection (i.e., initiated by a unique genetic strain) prior to the onset of host-induced selection, where we can assume a random accumulation of mutations. Previously, we have shown that such a model successfully describes about 80% of sexual HIV-1 transmissions provided the samples are drawn early enough in the infection. Violation of the model is an indicator of either heterogeneous infections or the initiation of selection.


When the underlying assumptions of our model (homogeneous infection prior to selection and fast exponential growth) are met, we are under a very particular scenario for which we can use a forward approach (instead of backwards in time as provided by coalescent methods). This allows for more computationally efficient methods to derive the time since the most recent common ancestor. Furthermore, the tool performs statistical tests on the Hamming distance frequency distribution, and outputs summary statistics (mean of the best fitting Poisson distribution, goodness of fit p-value, etc). The tool runs within minutes and can readily accommodate the tens of thousands of sequences generated through new ultradeep pyrosequencing technologies. The tool is available on the LANL website.