Pacing a small cage: mutation and RNA viruses

Belshaw R, Gardner A, Rambaut A & Pybus OG

(2008) Trends Ecol Evol 23, 188-193.

RNA viruses have an extremely high mutation rate, and we argue that the most plausible explanation for this is a trade-off with replication speed. We suggest that research into further increasing this mutation rate artificially as an antiviral treatment requires a theoretical reevaluation, especially relating to the so-called error threshold. The main evolutionary consequence of a high mutation rate appears to have been to restrict RNA viruses to a small genome; they thus rapidly exploit a limited array of possibilities. Investigating this constraint to their evolution, and how it is occasionally overcome, promises to be fruitful. We explain the many terms used in investigating RNA viral evolution and highlight the specific experimental and comparative work that needs to be done.

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Andrew Rambaut, 2007