TWiV 360: From Southeastern Michigan

On episode #360 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent visits the University of Michigan where he and Kathy speak with Michael, Adam, and Akira about polyomaviruses, virus evolution, and virus assembly, on the occasion of naming the department of Microbiology & Immunology a Milestones in Microbiology site.

You can find TWiV #360 at Or you can watch the video below.

TWiV 232: Gophers go viral

On episode #232 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent meets up with Roberto, Reuben, Lou, and Leslie at the University of Minnesota to talk about their work on HIV-1, APOBEC proteins, measles virus, and teaching virology to undergraduates.

You can find TWiV #232 at

Increased fidelity reduces viral fitness

pvrtgWe have spent over a week discussing the effects of polymerase error rates on viruses. RNA viruses have the highest error rates in nature, a property that is believed to benefit the viral population. For example, selective pressure from the immune system or antiviral drugs may lead to changes that are beneficial for the population. In fact, it has been hypothesized that high error rates are required for survival of RNA viruses in complex environments. The isolation of a poliovirus mutant with an RNA polymerase that makes fewer errors during replication made it possible to test this hypothesis.

Infection of an animal host poses perhaps the greatest challenges to viral propagation. Transmission, entry, host defenses, tissue diversity and anatomical restrictions all are serious obstacles to the ability of a virus to replicate, disseminate, and successfully spread to other hosts. Therefore the effect of viral diversity is most stringently tested in infection of an animal.

In these experiments, mice were inoculated with the poliovirus mutant containing the G64S amino acid change in the viral RNA polymerase that causes enhanced fidelity. Infection of mice with poliovirus typically leads to symptoms of poliomyelitis that are similar to those in humans. Compared with the wild-type parental virus, the G64S mutant was less pathogenic: it caused significantly less paralysis and lethality. This effect could be a consequence of restricting the viral quasispecies, or a replication defect in mice caused by the G64S mutation. To distinguish between these possibilities, the G64S mutant was propagated in cells in the presence of a mutagen, a procedure which expanded the number of viral mutants. This treatment – basically expanding the quasispecies – lead to a significant increase in lethality of the G64S virus, to nearly the same extent as wild type virus.

Why would a less complex quasispecies lead to reduced pathogenicity? Viral growth and spread in an animal likely requires a diverse viral population, comprising many mutants, which can replicate efficiently in the many different cell types in an animal. Support for this idea comes from a competition experiment in which the poliovirus G64S mutant was mixed with wild type virus and inoculated into the leg muscle of a mouse. Several days later the mice were sacrificed and the virus that had reached the brain was characterized.  The results showed that both wild type and the G64S virus could replicate in muscle, but the mutant virus spread to the brain less frequently.

These results show that mutations do benefit viral populations, especially in complex environments such as an animal. The ability to produce a quasispecies may allow virus populations to respond to the different environments encountered during spread between hosts, within organs and tissues, and in response to the pressure of the host immune response.

We’ll shortly return to influenza virus replication, but I hope you have been able to follow what to many must be a somewhat arcane discussion. From the silence I suspect that I might have lost some of you – it might help to go back over some of the posts. I’ll try to put up an index of some sort to make it easier to find articles. The blog format isn’t great when it comes to finding older material – once posts scroll off the bottom of the page, they don’t receive further notice.

Pfeiffer, J., & Kirkegaard, K. (2005). Increased fidelity reduces poliovirus fitness and virulence under selective pressure in mice PLoS Pathogens, 1 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.0010011

Vignuzzi, M., Stone, J., Arnold, J., Cameron, C., & Andino, R. (2005). Quasispecies diversity determines pathogenesis through cooperative interactions in a viral population Nature, 439 (7074), 344-348 DOI: 10.1038/nature04388

Pushing viruses over the error threshold

The capacity of RNA viruses to produce prodigious numbers of mutations is a powerful advantage. But remember that selection and survival must balance genetic fidelity and mutation rate. Many mutations are not compatible with viral replication. Consequently, if mutation rates are high, at some point accumulating base changes lead to lethal mutagenesis – the population is driven to extinction. The error threshold is a mathematical measurement of the genetic information that must be maintained to ensure survival of the population. The results of experiments clearly show that RNA viruses evolve close to their error threshold.

The first clues that viruses exist on the edge came from studies in which cells infected with the RNA viruses poliovirus and vesicular stomatitis virus were treated with base analogs that act as mutagens. These compounds, such as 5-azacytidine, are incorporated into the growing RNA chain during replication, leading to incorporation of incorrect bases. Treatment of virus infected cells with such drugs dramatically inhibits the production of new infectious virus particles, but stimulates mutagenesis of the viral RNA by only 2- or 3-fold. When the same experiment is done with cells infected with a DNA virus, the mutation frequency increases by several orders of magnitude.

A direct demonstration of error catastrophe was achieved by treating poliovirus-infected cells with the mutagen ribavirin. Treatment with a concentration of ribavirin that causes a 9.7-fold increase in mutagenesis lead to a 99.3% loss in poliovirus infectivity. A graph of the results shows that poliovirus exists at the edge of viability.


The line on the graph shows the infectivity of poliovirus RNA as a percentage of untreated viral RNA. The introduction of 2 mutations per genome reduces infectivity to about 30% of wild type RNA, while infectivity is nearly eliminated with 7 mutations per genome.

Ribavirin pushes poliovirus beyond the error threshold because it causes the RNA polymerase to make more errors than it already does. What would be the property of a poliovirus mutant resistant to this drug? A poliovirus mutant resistant to ribavirin was selected by passing the virus in the presence of increasing concentrations of the drug. Resistance to ribavirin is caused by a single amino acid change, G64S, in the viral RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. RNA synthesis of ribavirin-resistant poliovirus is characterized by fewer errors, in the absence of drug, compared with the parental virus. Therefore the mechanism of resistance to the mutagen ribavirin is achieved through an amino acid changes that makes a viral RNA polymerase with greater fidelity.

Now that we have an RNA polymerase that makes fewer errors, we can use it to limit viral diversity and test the theory that viral populations, not individual mutants, are the target of selection.

Crotty, S. (2001). RNA virus error catastrophe: Direct molecular test by using ribavirin Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98 (12), 6895-6900 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.111085598

Pfeiffer, J. (2003). A single mutation in poliovirus RNA-dependent RNA polymerase confers resistance to mutagenic nucleotide analogs via increased fidelity Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (12), 7289-7294 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1232294100