Beneficial effects of population bottlenecks in an RNA virus evolving at increased error rate

J Mol Biol. 2008 Dec 31;384(5):1120-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2008.10.014. Epub 2008 Oct 14.


RNA viruses replicate their genomes with a very high error rate and constitute highly heterogeneous mutant distributions similar to the molecular quasispecies introduced to explain the evolution of prebiotic replicators. The genetic information included in a quasispecies can only be faithfully transmitted below a critical error rate. When the error threshold is crossed, the population structure disorganizes, and it is substituted by a randomly distributed mutant spectrum. For viral quasispecies, the increase in error rate is associated with a decrease in specific infectivity that can lead to the extinction of the population. In contrast, a strong resistance to extinction has been observed in populations subjected to bottleneck events despite the increased accumulation of mutations. In the present study, we show that the mutagenic nucleoside analogue 5-azacytidine (AZC) is a potent mutagen for bacteriophage Qbeta. We have evaluated the effect of the increase in the replication error rate in populations of the bacteriophage Qbeta evolving either in liquid medium or during development of clonal populations in semisolid agar. Populations evolving in liquid medium in the presence of AZC were extinguished, while during plaque development in the presence of AZC, the virus experienced a significant increase in the replicative ability. Individual viruses isolated from preextinction populations could withstand high error rates during a number of plaque-to-plaque transfers. The response to mutagenesis is interpreted in the light of features of plaque development versus infections by free-moving virus particles and the distance to a mutation-selection equilibrium. The results suggest that clonal bacteriophage populations away from equilibrium derive replicative benefits from increased mutation rates. This is relevant to the application of lethal mutagenesis in vivo, in the case of viruses that encounter changing environments and are transmitted from cell to cell under conditions of limited diffusion that mimic the events taking place during plaque development.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Azacitidine / pharmacology
  • Bacteriophages / drug effects
  • Bacteriophages / genetics*
  • Bacteriophages / pathogenicity
  • Bacteriophages / physiology
  • Clone Cells
  • Culture Media
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects
  • Escherichia coli / virology
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetic Heterogeneity
  • Genome, Viral / genetics
  • Mutagenesis / drug effects
  • Mutation / genetics*
  • RNA Viruses / drug effects
  • RNA Viruses / genetics*
  • Titrimetry
  • Virus Replication / drug effects


  • Culture Media
  • Azacitidine