Rapid evolution of translational control mechanisms in RNA genomes

J Mol Biol. 1997 Jan 31;265(4):372-84. doi: 10.1006/jmbi.1996.0745.


We have introduced 13 base substitutions into the coat protein gene of RNA bacteriophage MS2. The mutations, which are clustered ahead of the overlapping lysis cistron, do not change the amino acid sequence of the coat protein, but they disrupt a local hairpin, which is needed to control translation of the lysis gene. The mutations decreased the phage titer by four orders of magnitude but, upon passaging, the virus accumulated suppressor mutations that raised the fitness to almost wild-type level. Analysis of the pseudorevertants showed that the disruption of the local hairpin, controlling expression of the lysis gene, had apparently been so complete that its restoration by chance mutations could not be achieved. Instead, alternative foldings initiated by the starting mutations were further stabilized and optimized. Strikingly, in the pseudorevertants analyzed, translational control of the lysis gene had been restored. This feat was accomplished by, on average, four suppressor mutations that generally occurred at codon wobble positions. We also introduced 11 mutations in a hairpin more upstream in the coat protein gene and not implicated in lysis control. Here the titer dropped by three logs, but pseudorevertants with a fitness close to wild-type were soon generated. These pseudorevertants again were the result of the optimization of alternative foldings induced by the mutations. The transition of the secondary structure from wild-type to pseudorevertant could be visualized by structure probing. Our study shows that the folding of the RNA is an important phenotypic property of RNA viruses. However, its distortion can easily be overcome by optimizing alternative base-pairings. These new structures are not qualitatively equivalent to the original one, since they do not successfully compete with the wild-type.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Base Sequence
  • Capsid / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Genes, Viral
  • Genome
  • Levivirus / genetics*
  • Levivirus / physiology
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutagenesis
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation
  • Protein Biosynthesis*
  • RNA, Viral*


  • RNA, Viral