Based on their extremely high mutation rates, RNA viruses have been traditionally considered as the fastest evolving entities in nature. However, recent work has revealed that, despite their greater replication fidelity, single-stranded (ss) DNA viruses can evolve fast in a similar way. To further investigate this issue, we have compared the rates of adaptation and molecular evolution of ssRNA and ssDNA viruses under highly controlled laboratory conditions using the bacteriophages ΦX174, G4, f1, Qβ, SP, and MS2 as model systems. Our results indicate that ssRNA phages evolve faster than ssDNA phages under strong selective pressure, and that their extremely high mutation rates appear to be optimal for this kind of scenario. However, their performance becomes similar to that of ssDNA phages over the longer term or when the population is moderately well-adapted. Interestingly, the roughly 100-fold difference between the mutation rates of ssRNA and ssDNA phages yields less than a fivefold difference in adaptation and nucleotide substitution rates. The results are therefore consistent with the observation that, despite their lower mutation rates, ssDNA viruses can sometimes match the evolvability of RNA viruses.
© 2011 The Author(s). Evolution© 2011 The Society for the Study of Evolution.