Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Escherichia coli–expressed near full length HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein is a highly sensitive and specific diagnostic antigen

Sheikh M Talha12*, Satish Kumar Nemani2, Teppo Salminen1, Sushil Kumar2, Sathyamangalam Swaminathan2, Tero Soukka1, Kim Pettersson1 and Navin Khanna2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biotechnology, University of Turku, 20520, Turku, Finland

2 Recombinant Gene Products Group, International Centre for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology, Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, New Delhi, 110067, India

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2012, 12:325  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-12-325

Published: 27 November 2012



The Human Immunodeficiency Virus type 1 (HIV-1) envelope glycoprotein gp160, useful in detecting anti-HIV-1 antibodies, is difficult to express in heterologous hosts. The major hurdles are its signal sequence, strong hydrophobic regions and heavy glycosylation. While it has not been possible to express full length recombinant (r)-gp160 in E. coli, it can be expressed in insect and mammalian cells, but at relatively higher cost. In this work, we report E. coli-based over-expression of r-gp160 variant and evaluate its performance in diagnostic immunoassays for the detection of anti-HIV-1 antibodies.


A deletion variant of r-gp160 lacking hydrophobic regions of the parent full length molecule was expressed in E. coli and purified to near homogeneity using single-step Ni(II)-affinity chromatography. Biotinylated and europium(III) chelate-labeled versions of this antigen were used to set up one- and two-step time-resolved fluorometric double antigen sandwich assays. The performance of these assays was evaluated against a collection of well-characterized human sera (n=131), that included an in-house panel and four commercially procured panels.


In-frame deletion of three hydrophobic regions, spanning amino acid residues 1–43, 519–538 and 676–706, of full length HIV-1 gp160 resulted in its expression in E. coli. Both the one- and two-step assays manifested high sensitivity unambiguously identifying 75/77 and 77/77 HIV-1 positive sera, respectively. Both assays also identified all 52 HIV-seronegative sera correctly. Between the two assays, the mean signal-to-cutoff value of the two-step assay was an order of magnitude greater than that of the one-step assay. Both assays were highly specific manifesting no cross-reactivity towards antibodies specific to other viruses like hepatitis B, C, and human T cell leukemia viruses.


This study has demonstrated the expression of r-gp160 variant in E. coli, by deletion of hydrophobic regions, and its purification in reasonable yields. This underscores the potential for cost saving in antigen production. Evaluation of this antigen in a double antigen sandwich two-step assay showed it to be a highly sensitive and specific HIV-1 diagnostic reagent. The amenability of this assay to the one-step format suggests its potential utility in developing a rapid point-of-care HIV-1 diagnostic test.

Recombinant HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein; Expression in E. coli; Eu3+-chelate; Time-resolved fluorescence; Time resolved fluorometry; HIV diagnostics