Circulating virus load determines the size of bottlenecks in viral populations progressing within a host

PLoS Pathog. 2012;8(11):e1003009. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1003009. Epub 2012 Nov 1.


For any organism, population size, and fluctuations thereof, are of primary importance in determining the forces driving its evolution. This is particularly true for viruses--rapidly evolving entities that form populations with transient and explosive expansions alternating with phases of migration, resulting in strong population bottlenecks and associated founder effects that increase genetic drift. A typical illustration of this pattern is the progression of viral disease within a eukaryotic host, where such demographic fluctuations are a key factor in the emergence of new variants with altered virulence. Viruses initiate replication in one or only a few infection foci, then move through the vasculature to seed secondary infection sites and so invade distant organs and tissues. Founder effects during this within-host colonization might depend on the concentration of infectious units accumulating and circulating in the vasculature, as this represents the infection dose reaching new organs or "territories". Surprisingly, whether or not the easily measurable circulating (plasma) virus load directly drives the size of population bottlenecks during host colonization has not been documented in animal viruses, while in plants the virus load within the sap has never been estimated. Here, we address this important question by monitoring both the virus concentration flowing in host plant sap, and the number of viral genomes founding the population in each successive new leaf. Our results clearly indicate that the concentration of circulating viruses directly determines the size of bottlenecks, which hence controls founder effects and effective population size during disease progression within a host.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aphids / virology
  • Brassica rapa / virology*
  • Caulimovirus / physiology*
  • Genome, Viral / physiology*
  • Plant Diseases / virology*
  • Plant Leaves / virology*
  • Viral Load / physiology*

Grant support

SG, MY, EP and SB are funded by INRA dpt SPE and ANR grant N° 2010-BLAN-1704 01. YM acknowledges support from CNRS and IRD. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.