The recent series of posts on polymerase error rates and viral evolution has elicited many excellent and thought provoking comments from readers of virology blog. Here is one that I had not thought of before, and which I’ll use on an exam in my virology course:
Here’s a tough question. In the follow up blog to this, you say that the high mutation rates of RNA viruses is beneficial to survival in a complex environment. If this is true, why don’t DNA viruses evolve high mutation rates also? It would be simple for them to delete their proofreading domain.
There is no answer to this question, so I’ll speculate. I believe that DNA viruses have error correction mechanisms so that they can have very long genomes. RNA viral genomes are no longer than 27-31 kb. This limit is probably imposed by their high error rate: if RNA genomes were longer, they would likely sustain too many lethal mutations to survive. Error correction mechanisms allow for DNA viral genomes up to 1.2 million bases in length. Smaller DNA viruses don’t have their own DNA polymerases – they use those of the cell. Cellular DNA polymerases have error repair to avoid mutations that lead to diseases such as cancer. Both forms of reproduction are evolutionarily sustainable: shorter RNAs with lots of errors; longer DNAs with fewer errors.
The reader who posed the original question then came back with this retort:
If reduced fidelity is beneficial to RNA viruses, because of the complex environment they are in, why don’t DNA viruses do the same thing?
I think the same endpoint, in terms of surviving in complex environments, is achieved by both strategies. RNA viruses have high diversity; DNA genomes have many more gene products which allow them to survive in diverse situations. Both strategies appear to be evolutionarily sustainable.
It’s important to keep in mind that the goal of viral evolution is survival. Evolution does not move a viral genome from “simple” to “complex”, or along a trajectory aimed at “perfection”. Change is effected by elimination of the ill adapted of the moment, not on the prospect of building something better for the future.
While researching this subject I came across a series of papers on DNA synthesis by African swine fever virus, a virus with a DNA genome of 168-189 kb. The viral genome encodes a complete DNA replication apparatus, including DNA polymerase and DNA repair enzymes. Incredibly, the DNA repair pathway itself is error-prone, which is believed to contribute to the genetic variability of the virus. There is some controversy concerning the error rate for this virus, so we don’t know the consequence of this observation for fidelity of DNA replication. Nevertheless, these observations suggest that evolution has seen fit to tinker with, and perhaps increase, the error rates of certain DNA based organisms.
Lamarche, B., Kumar, S., & Tsai, M. (2006). ASFV DNA Polymerase X Is Extremely Error-Prone under Diverse Assay Conditions and within Multiple DNA Sequence Contexts. Biochemistry, 45 (49), 14826-14833 DOI: 10.1021/bi0613325