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J Gen Virol. 2013 Apr;94(Pt 4):817-30. doi: 10.1099/vir.0.049171-0. Epub 2012 Dec 12.

Molecular dissection of a viral quasispecies under mutagenic treatment: positive correlation between fitness loss and mutational load.

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Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa (CSIC-UAM), Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Campus de Cantoblanco, Madrid, Spain.


Low fidelity replication and the absence of error-repair activities in RNA viruses result in complex and adaptable ensembles of related genomes in the viral population, termed quasispecies, with important implications for natural infections. Theoretical predictions suggested that elevated replication error rates in RNA viruses might be near to a maximum compatible with viral viability. This fact encouraged the use of mutagenic nucleosides as a new antiviral strategy to induce viral extinction through increased replication error rates. Despite extensive evidence of lethal mutagenesis of RNA viruses by different mutagenic compounds, a detailed picture of the infectivity of individual genomes and its relationship with the mutations accumulated is lacking. Here, we report a molecular analysis of a foot-and-mouth disease virus population previously subjected to heavy mutagenesis to determine whether a correlation between increased mutagenesis and decreased fitness existed. Plaque-purified viruses isolated from a ribavirin-treated quasispecies presented decreases of up to 200-fold in infectivity relative to clones in the reference population, associated with an overall eightfold increase in the mutation frequency. This observation suggests that individual infectious genomes of a quasispecies subjected to increased mutagenesis lose infectivity by their continuous mutagenic 'poisoning'. These results support the lethal defection model of virus extinction and the practical use of chemical mutagens as antiviral treatment. Even when extinction is not achieved, mutagenesis can decrease the infectivity of surviving virus, and facilitate their clearance by host immune responses or complementing antiviral approaches.

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