A large variation in the rates of synonymous substitution for RNA viruses and its relationship to a diversity of viral infection and transmission modes

Mol Biol Evol. 2004 Jun;21(6):1074-80. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msh109. Epub 2004 Mar 10.


RNA viruses successfully adapt to various environments by repeatedly producing new mutants, often through generating a number of nucleotide substitutions. To estimate the degree of variation in mutation rates of RNA viruses and to understand the source of such variation, we studied the synonymous substitution rate because synonymous substitution is exempt from functional constraints at the protein level, and its rate reflects the mutation rate to a great extent. We estimated the synonymous substitution rates for a total of 49 different species of RNA viruses, and we found that the rates had tremendous variation by 5 orders of magnitude (from 1.3 x 10(-7) to 6.2 x 10(-2) /synonymous site/year). Comparing the synonymous substitution rates with the replication frequencies and replication error rates for the RNA viruses, we found that the main source of the rate variation was differences in the replication frequency because the rates of replication error were roughly constant over different RNA viruses. Moreover, we examined a relationship between viral life strategies and synonymous substitution rates to understand which viral life strategies affect replication frequencies. The results show that the variation of synonymous substitution rates has been influenced most by either the difference in the infection modes or the differences in the transmission modes. In conclusion, the variation of mutation rates for RNA viruses is caused by different replication frequencies, which are affected strongly by the infection and transmission modes.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Databases, Genetic
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Mutation / genetics*
  • RNA Viruses / genetics*
  • RNA Viruses / physiology
  • Species Specificity
  • Virus Replication*