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Genetics. Jun 2004; 167(2): 559–567.
PMCID: PMC1470902

Epistasis and its relationship to canalization in the RNA virus phi 6.

Abstract

Although deleterious mutations are believed to play a critical role in evolution, assessing their realized effect has been difficult. A key parameter governing the effect of deleterious mutations is the nature of epistasis, the interaction between the mutations. RNA viruses should provide one of the best systems for investigating the nature of epistasis because the high mutation rate allows a thorough investigation of mutational effects and interactions. Nonetheless, previous investigations of RNA viruses by S. Crotty and co-workers and by S. F. Elena have been unable to detect a significant effect of epistasis. Here we provide evidence that positive epistasis is characteristic of deleterious mutations in the RNA bacteriophage phi 6. We estimated the effects of deleterious mutations by performing mutation-accumulation experiments on five viral genotypes of decreasing fitness. We inferred positive epistasis because viral genotypes with low fitness were found to be less sensitive to deleterious mutations. We further examined environmental sensitivity in these genotypes and found that low-fitness genotypes were also less sensitive to environmental perturbations. Our results suggest that even random mutations impact the degree of canalization, the buffering of a phenotype against genetic and environmental perturbations. In addition, our results suggest that genetic and environmental canalization have the same developmental basis and finally that an understanding of the nature of epistasis may first require an understanding of the nature of canalization.

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Selected References

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