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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 Jun 5;98(12):6895-900. Epub 2001 May 22.

RNA virus error catastrophe: direct molecular test by using ribavirin.

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Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of California, 513 Parnassus Avenue, Box 0414, San Francisco, CA 94143, USA.


RNA viruses evolve rapidly. One source of this ability to rapidly change is the apparently high mutation frequency in RNA virus populations. A high mutation frequency is a central tenet of the quasispecies theory. A corollary of the quasispecies theory postulates that, given their high mutation frequency, animal RNA viruses may be susceptible to error catastrophe, where they undergo a sharp drop in viability after a modest increase in mutation frequency. We recently showed that the important broad-spectrum antiviral drug ribavirin (currently used to treat hepatitis C virus infections, among others) is an RNA virus mutagen, and we proposed that ribavirin's antiviral effect is by forcing RNA viruses into error catastrophe. However, a direct demonstration of error catastrophe has not been made for ribavirin or any RNA virus mutagen. Here we describe a direct demonstration of error catastrophe by using ribavirin as the mutagen and poliovirus as a model RNA virus. We demonstrate that ribavirin's antiviral activity is exerted directly through lethal mutagenesis of the viral genetic material. A 99.3% loss in viral genome infectivity is observed after a single round of virus infection in ribavirin concentrations sufficient to cause a 9.7-fold increase in mutagenesis. Compiling data on both the mutation levels and the specific infectivities of poliovirus genomes produced in the presence of ribavirin, we have constructed a graph of error catastrophe showing that normal poliovirus indeed exists at the edge of viability. These data suggest that RNA virus mutagens may represent a promising new class of antiviral drugs.

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