Does Mutational Robustness Inhibit Extinction by Lethal Mutagenesis in Viral Populations?




O'Dea, Eamon B.
Keller, Thomas E.
Wilke, Claus O.

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Public Library of Science


Lethal mutagenesis is a promising new antiviral therapy that kills a virus by raising its mutation rate. One potential shortcoming of lethal mutagenesis is that viruses may resist the treatment by evolving genomes with increased robustness to mutations. Here, we investigate to what extent mutational robustness can inhibit extinction by lethal mutagenesis in viruses, using both simple toy models and more biophysically realistic models based on RNA secondary-structure folding. We show that although the evolution of greater robustness may be promoted by increasing the mutation rate of a viral population, such evolution is unlikely to greatly increase the mutation rate required for certain extinction. Using an analytic multi-type branching process model, we investigate whether the evolution of robustness can be relevant on the time scales on which extinction takes place. We find that the evolution of robustness matters only when initial viral population sizes are small and deleterious mutation rates are only slightly above the level at which extinction can occur. The stochastic calculations are in good agreement with simulations of self-replicating RNA sequences that have to fold into a specific secondary structure to reproduce. We conclude that the evolution of mutational robustness is in most cases unlikely to prevent the extinction of viruses by lethal mutagenesis.


LCSH Subject Headings


O'Dea EB, Keller TE, Wilke CO (2010) Does Mutational Robustness Inhibit Extinction by Lethal Mutagenesis in Viral Populations? PLoS Comput Biol 6(6): e1000811. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000811