Lethal mutagenesis, the attempt to extinguish a population by elevating its mutation rate, has been endorsed in the virology literature as a promising approach for treating viral infections. In support of the concept, in vitro studies have forced viral extinction with high doses of mutagenic drugs. However, the one known mutagenic drug used on patients commonly fails to cure infections, and in vitro studies typically find a wide range of mutagenic conditions permissive for viral growth. A key question becomes how subsequent evolution is affected if the viral population is mutated but avoids extinction--Is viral adaptation augmented rather than suppressed? Here we consider the evolution of highly mutated populations surviving mutagenesis, using the DNA phage T7. In assays using inhibitory hosts, whenever resistance mutants were observed, the mutagenized populations exhibited higher frequencies, but some inhibitors blocked plaque formation by even the mutagenized stock. Second, outgrowth of previously mutagenized populations led to rapid and potentially complete fitness recovery but polymorphism was slow to decay, and mutations exhibited inconsistent patterns of change. Third, the combination of population bottlenecks with mutagenesis did cause fitness declines, revealing a vulnerability that was not apparent from mutagenesis of large populations. The results show that a population surviving high mutagenesis may exhibit enhanced adaptation in some environments and experience little negative fitness consequences in many others.
Keywords: evolution; extinction; fitness; mutation; theory; virus.