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Nature. 1990 Nov 29;348(6300):454-5.

Fitness of RNA virus decreased by Muller's ratchet.

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Department of Zoology, University of Maryland, College Park 20742.


Why sex exists remains an unsolved problem in biology. If mutations are on the average deleterious, a high mutation rate can account for the evolution of sex. One form of this mutational hypothesis is Muller's ratchet. If the mutation rate is high, mutation-free individuals become rare and they can be lost by genetic drift in small populations. In asexual populations, as Muller noted, the loss is irreversible and the load of deleterious mutations increases in a ratchet-like manner with the successive loss of the least-mutated individuals. Sex can be advantageous because it increases the fitness of sexual populations by re-creating mutation-free individuals from mutated individuals and stops (or slows) Muller's ratchet. Although Muller's ratchet is an appealing hypothesis, it has been investigated and documented experimentally in only one group of organisms--ciliated protozoa. I initiated a study to examine the role of Muller's ratchet on the evolution of sex in RNA viruses and report here a significant decrease in fitness due to Muller's ratchet in 20 lineages of the RNA bacteriophage phi 6. These results show that deleterious mutations are generated at a sufficiently high rate to advance Muller's ratchet in an RNA virus and that beneficial, backward and compensatory mutations cannot stop the ratchet in the observed range of fitness decrease.

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