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Broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs) to HIV delineate vaccine targets and are prophylactic and therapeutic agents. Some of the most potent bnAbs target a quaternary epitope at the apex of the surface HIV envelope (Env) trimer. Using cryo-electron microscopy, we solved the atomic structure of an apex bnAb, PGT145, in complex with Env. We showed that the long anionic HCDR3 of PGT145 penetrated between glycans at the trimer 3-fold axis, to contact peptide residues from all three Env protomers, and thus explains its highly trimer-specific nature. Somatic hypermutation in the other CDRs of PGT145 were crucially involved in stabilizing the structure of the HCDR3, similar to bovine antibodies, to aid in recognition of a cluster of conserved basic residues hypothesized to facilitate trimer disassembly during viral entry. Overall, the findings exemplify the creative solutions that the human immune system can evolve to recognize a conserved motif buried under a canopy of glycans.Apex binding antibody PGT145 engages all three gp120 protomers simultaneouslyEpitope recognition is chemical-feature specificPGT145-class antibodies exhibit structural features that reflect bovine antibodiesPGT145-class antibody maturation is dependent on structural stabilization of HCDR3Broadly neutralizing antibodies of the PGT145-family target the HIV-1 Env trimer apex via a long β-hairpin HCDR3, but the molecular basis of recognition is unknown. Using cryoEM, Lee et al. (2017) reveal how PGT145 binds its quaternary epitope and the importance of HCDR2 evolution despite its lack of contacts with Env.