Differences in adaptive dynamics determine the success of virus variants that propagate together

Arribas, M., Aguirre, J., Manrubia, S., Lázaro, E. 2018. Differences in adaptive dynamics determine the success of virus variants that propagate together. Virus Evolution, 4, 1, DOI: 10.1093/ve/vex043

Virus fitness is a complex parameter that results from the interaction of virus-specific characters (e. g. intracellular growth rate, adsorption rate, virion extracellular stability, and tolerance to mutations) with others that depend on the underlying fitness landscape and the internal structure of the whole population. Individual mutants usually have lower fitness values than the complex population from which they come from. When they are propagated and allowed to attain large population sizes for a sufficiently long time, they approach mutation-selection equilibrium with the concomitant fitness gains. The optimization process follows dynamics that vary among viruses, likely due to differences in any of the parameters that determine fitness values. As a consequence, when different mutants spread together, the number of generations experienced by each of them prior to co-propagation may determine its particular fate. In this work we attempt a clarification of the effect of different levels of population diversity in the outcome of competition dynamics. To this end, we analyze the behavior of two mutants of the RNA bacteriophage Qb that co-propagate with the wild-type virus. When both competitor viruses are clonal, the mutants rapidly outcompete the wild type. However, the outcome in competitions performed with partially optimized virus populations depends on the distance of the competitors to their clonal origin. We also implement a theoretical population dynamics model that describes the evolution of a heterogeneous population of individuals, each characterized by a fitness value, subjected to subsequent cycles of replication and mutation. The experimental results are explained in the framework of our theoretical model under two non-excluding, likely complementary assumptions: (1) The relative advantage of both competitors changes as populations approach mutation-selection equilibrium, as a consequence of differences in their growth rates and (2) one of the competitors is more robust to mutations than the other. The main conclusion is that the nearness of an RNA virus population to mutation-selection equilibrium is a key factor determining the fate of particular mutants arising during replication.

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