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J Virol. Jul 1994; 68(7): 4295–4301.
PMCID: PMC236352

Subclonal components of consensus fitness in an RNA virus clone.


Most RNA virus populations exhibit extremely high mutation frequencies which generate complex, genetically heterogeneous populations referred to as quasi-species. Previous work has shown that when a large spectrum of the quasi-species is transferred, natural selection operates, leading to elimination of noncompetitive (inferior) genomes and rapid gains in fitness. However, whenever the population is repeatedly reduced to a single virion, variable declines in fitness occur as predicted by the Muller's ratchet hypothesis. Here, we quantitated the fitness of 98 subclones isolated from an RNA virus clonal population. We found a normal distribution around a lower fitness, with the average subclone being less fit than the parental clonal population. This finding demonstrates the phenotypic diversity in RNA virus populations and shows that, as expected, a large fraction of mutations generated during virus replication is deleterious. This clarifies the operation of Muller's ratchet and illustrates why a large number of virions must be transferred for rapid fitness gains to occur. We also found that repeated genetic bottleneck passages can cause irregular stochastic declines in fitness, emphasizing again the phenotypic heterogeneity present in RNA virus populations. Finally, we found that following only 60 h of selection (15 passages in which virus yields were harvested after 4 h), RNA virus populations can undergo a 250% average increase in fitness, even on a host cell type to which they were already well adapted. This is a remarkable ability; in population biology, even a much lower fitness gain (e.g., 1 to 2%) can represent a highly significant reproductive advantage. We discuss the biological implications of these findings for the natural transmission and pathogenesis of RNA viruses.

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