Discussion of all aspects of cellular structure, physiology and communication.
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Zavod za biokemiju i molekularnu biologiju
A.Kovačića 1, 10 000 Zagreb
Project: Maria – Helena Ružić, Ana Kovačević
Aspects of recombination in RNA viruses
RNA viruses deserve their reputation as Nature's swiftest evolvers. Their high rates of mutation and replication allow them to move through sequence space at a pace that often makes their DNA-based hosts ' evolution look
glacial by comparison.
Over the last two decades it has become increasingly clear that many RNA viruses add the capacity to exchange genetic material with one another, and to acquire
genes from their hosts, to this evolutionary repertoire. So, in addition to producing prodigious amounts of the raw material of evolution (mutations), these viruses also possess mechanisms that, in principle, allow them both to purge their
genomes of accumulated deleterious changes (Muller, 1964) and to create or spread bene locial combinations of mutations in an efficient manner (Fisher, 1930;Muller, 1932), two processes which are not available to clonal organisms. Two distinct but not mutually exclusive types of genetic exchange operate in RNA viruses. The first, reassortment,
occurs only in multipartite viruses and involves swapping one
or more of the discrete RNA molecules that make up the segmented viral genome. Antigenic shift in in¯uenza A virus is an example of this sort of genetic exchange and serves as a good illustration of the potential evolutionary significance of
A second process, recombination, can occur ineither segmented or unsegmented viruses when `donor'nucleotide sequence is introduced into a single, contiguous
` acceptor ' RNA molecule to produce a new RNA containing
genetic information from more than one source. In this paper
we focus on this type of genetic exchange. First, we brie¯y
review current knowledge of RNA virus recombination and
describe new methods for detecting its occurrence using gene
sequence data. We then discuss some of the evolutionary
implications of virus recombination and some of the constraints
that may shape the variety of RNA virus recombination.
Recombination in RNA viruses
In some cases of RNA virus recombination, the donor
sequence neatly replaces a homologous region of the acceptor
sequence leaving its structure unchanged. This has been
classified as `homologous recombination ' (Lai, 1992) since it
involves not just homologous parental RNAs, but also
crossovers at homologous sites. However, this is not always
the case ; hybrid sequences resulting from aberrant homologous
recombination (when similar viruses exchange sequence without
maintaining strict alignment) and nonhomologous recombination
(recombination between unrelated RNA sequences)
are also commonly observed (Lai, 1992).
Despite producing distinct kinds of hybrid RNAs, as well as
defective interfering (DI) RNAs (Lazzarini et al., 1981), the
different types of recombination appear to be variations on a
common theme. To date, almost all studies on the mechanisms
of recombination in RNA viruses have supported a copy±
choice model, originally proposed in the case of poliovirus
(Cooper et al., 1974) and now well studied in a number of
experimental systems (Duggal et al., 1997; Jarvis & Kirkegaard,
1992; Kirkegaard & Baltimore, 1986; Nagy & Bujarski, 1995,
1998; Nagy et al., 1998; Simon & Nagy, 1996; for a recent
review see Nagy & Simon, 1997). Under this model, hybrid
RNAs are formed when the viral RNA-dependent RNA
polymerase complex switches, mid-replication, from one RNA
molecule to another. This results in homologous recombination
if the replicase continues to copy the new strand precisely
where it left the old one, and aberrant or nonhomologous
recombination if it does not. This template-switching mechanism
is fundamentally different from the enzyme-driven
breakage±rejoining mechanism of homologous recombination
in DNA, not least because it invokes replication as a necessary
component of the process. Finally, Chetverin et al. (1997)
presented evidence for a splicing-like, transesterication mechanism
to explain the in vitro generation of recombinants
between RNAs associated with Qb bacteriophage ± a possible
exception to the copy±choice model of recombination in RNA
viruses. Whether such a mechanism operates in vivo remains to
be seen ; however, end-to-end joining is not regarded as a
likely mechanism for homologous recombination.
There is now a fairly rich literature documenting recombination
in RNA viruses. Many excellent recent reviews
have dealt comprehensively with aspects of recombination in
experimental and natural settings with respect to animal
viruses (Lai, 1992, 1996; Ball, 1997; Strauss & Strauss, 1997),
plant viruses (Lai, 1992; Simon & Bujarski, 1994; Roossinck,
1997; Aaziz & Tepfer, 1999) and bacteriophages (Mindich,
1996; Chetverin, 1997). Recently, reports describing homologous recombination in rotaviruses (Suzuki et al., 1998) and in hantaviruses (Sibold et al., 1999) have added doublestranded
and negative-sense RNA viruses, respectively, to the
long list of RNA viruses in which homologous recombination
has been detected. The emerging signi®cance of RNA virus
recombination is all the more fascinating given the fact that ±
until the comparatively recent publication by Cooper et al.
(1974) which showed that mutants of poliovirus could be
mapped by recombination analysis ± recombination was not
thought to be a property of RNA genomes.
New tools for detecting recombination in
The molecular revolution initiated by the development of
PCR has transformed the study of virus recombination.
Sequence analysis and phylogenetic techniques have in recent
years proven to be extremely effective methods for detecting
and characterizing recombination events among RNA viruses
both in nature (Gao et al., 1998; Hahn et al., 1988; Holmes et
al., 1999; Kusters et al., 1990; Revers et al., 1996; Sibold et al.,
1999; Suzuki et al., 1998; Worobey et al., 1999) and in the
laboratory (Banner&Lai, 1991; Greene&Allison, 1994; Kotier
et al., 1995; Mindich, 1996; Palasingam & Shaklee, 1992;
Weiss & Schlesinger, 1991). They offer a way not just to
recover information about recombination events that may
have occurred long ago or are exceedingly rare (Snijder et al.,
1991; Weaver et al., 1997), but also to probe the nest details
of the mechanism itself (Banner & Lai, 1991; Olsthoorn & van
Duin, 1996). They also provide a means to home in on the
precise location of putative crossover points and to test results
suggestive of recombination for statistical signicance.
Several methods for detecting recombination events and
locating breakpoints are graphical in nature, exploiting the fact
that many recombinant sequences are mosaics comprising
regions with quite different phylogenetic histories. One of
these, Split Decomposition analysis (Bandelt & Dress,
1992; Huson, 1998), presents con¯icting phylogenetic signal
in a single diagram. If no recombination has occurred in the
sequences tested, the splits-graph tends to resemble a
dichotomously branching phylogenetic tree, because this
adequately describes sequence relationships. However, in
datasets containing con¯icting signal due to the presence of
recombinant and hence `mosaic' sequences, the tree-like
pattern is often replaced by a more complicated `network' that
indicates a history of genetic exchange. It is worth noting that
conventional phylogenetics programs are constrained to
produce simple branching trees and can lead to serious
misinterpretation if sequence alignments are not carefully
examined for evidence of recombination prior to tree reconstruction.
Several other graphical applications, including ` bootscanning'
(Salminen et al., 1995), `PhylPro' (Weiller, 1998),
`TOPAL' (McGuire &Wright, 1998) and `DIVERT' (Gao et al.,
1998), use ` sliding windows' to detect discordant sequence
relationships suggestive of recombination. Bootscanning is an
aptly named phylogenetic approach that initially produces a
tree from a small window at one end of a sequence alignment
and assesses its robustness using bootstrapping. The window
is then incrementally shifted along the alignment and a new
bootstrap tree is produced for each resulting subset of the
alignment. Significant topological changes in the position of a
sequence in different windows indicate possible recombination.
PhylPro and TOPAL both slide a pair of adjacent windows
along the sequence alignment. Each of these methods employs
a different measure of phylogenetic signal, but in both the
phylogenetic information contained in one window is compared
to that in the neighbouring window. In the absence of
recombination all windows are expected to show similar
patterns. On the other hand, if recombination has occurred,
some adjacent windows are expected to contain con¯icting
signal and the difference between them should be greatest
when they straddle a recombination breakpoint. DIVERT, the
simplest of the sliding window graphical methods (and often
the most effective), outputs a graph of genetic distance
comparisons between a chosen sequence and comparison
sequences, which can show runs of sequence similarity and
dissimilarity suggestive of recombination. Diversity plots have
been used to great effect in the search for recombinant human
immunodeficiency virus and simian immunodeficiency virus
strains (Gao et al., 1998, 1999) and are ideally suited for
detection of RNA virus homologous recombination (Worobey
et al., 1999).
Many of these programs permit a simple qualitative
assessment of possible recombination breakpoints based on the
visual analysis of their output. However, for cases where
putative recombinants and reasonably close relatives of their
acceptor and donor sequences are available, more sophisticated
procedures exist for locating crossover points. Informative
Sites Analysis (Robertson et al., 1995), a parsimony-based
adaptation of the maximum test (Maynard Smith, 1992),
uses the distribution of polymorphic sites between a probable
recombinant and its putative ` parents ' to estimate recombination
junctions. The results can then be compared to
randomized distributions of polymorphic sites to assess their
signi®cance. A similar method, LARD (Holmes et al., 1999),
uses a maximum likelihood method to infer the optimal
breakpoints for a possible recombinant, then uses simulated
sequences to test the statistical significance of the results.
Some other methods attempt to quantify the amount of
recombination between a set of sequences, rather than
document specific recombination events, often using the
degree of linkage equilibrium. One way this can be done is
with the Index of Association. Using this statistical test, which
was designed to detect associations between alleles at different
loci, it is possible to measure the extent of linkage equilibrium
within populations (Maynard Smith et al., 1993). Another,
based on a direct phylogenetic analysis, is the Homoplasy Test
Here, the number ofhomoplasic (i.e. convergent and parallel) base changes in data
observed after construction of a maximum parsimony tree is
compared to that number expected by chance. Excessive
homoplasies are the fingerprint of recombination.
How clonal are viruses?
The impressive tally of recombinant ` hopeful monsters' ±
dramatically altered hybrid viruses that have passed the test of
natural selection and emerged as successful new viruses ±
attests to the power of recombination as an evolutionary force
in RNA viruses (Allison et al., 1989; Gibbs & Cooper,
1995; Herrewegh et al., 1998; Luytjes et al., 1988; Revers et al.,
1996; Ro$hm et al., 1996; Snijder et al., 1991; Suzuki et al.,
1998; Weaver et al., 1997). In some cases, evolutionary
evidence suggests that newly formed recombinant strains may
have initially exhibited decreased functionality, but subsequently
evolved to compensate for these effects. For
example, the Western equine encephalitis (WEE) complex
viruses are the product of a single recombination event that
occurred between Eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV) and
a Sindbis-like virus, probably within the last 2000 years
(Weaver et al., 1997). Sequence analysis of WEEV indicated
that, subsequent to the recombination event, its EEEV-like
capsid protein evolved to become more like a Sindbis-virus
capsid, possibly because it needs to interact with Sindbis-like
glycoproteins during virus budding (Hahn et al., 1988).
Conversely, in a sort of evolutionary compromise, almost all
the amino acid changes in the Sindbis-like glycoproteins have
been to residues that match those of EEEV. It is possible that
the new antigenic properties conferred by the Sindbis-like
glycoproteins of this predominantly EEEV-like hybrid were
sufficiently advantageous to off-set what appears to have been
a signi®cant mismatch between its recombinant structural
Whatever the circumstances of the survival and subsequent
diversi®cation of particular recombinants, it is now evident
that many pass through the narrow gates of natural selection
and contribute to the diversity seen in RNA viruses. The
production of new strains having genomes comprising regions
with different histories has important implications for the way
we think about virus evolution. For one, it means that there is
no single phylogenetic tree that can describe the evolutionary
relationships between viruses ; the recombinative nature of
viruses simply precludes the possibility of a ` true ' phylogenetic
taxonomy. Far from being an incidental process best ignored
when considering virus relationships and history, recombination
may have played a crucial role in generating many of
the taxonomic groups we recognize (Koonin & Dolja, 1993) ±
today's hopeful monster giving rise to tomorrow's genus or
family of viruses. Some studies of recombination have even led
to recommendations that higher-than-family taxonomic units
should be avoided altogether (Goldbach, 1992).
The inappropriateness of tree-like representations of evolutionary
relatedness may also apply within some virus species.
In principle, the possibility of homologous recombination
between similar strains means that the population structure in
viruses could range from completely clonal, if no recombination
has taken place, to panmictic, if recombination has
been common enough to effectively randomize loci. Although
signi®cant progress has been made studying population
structure in other organisms (Maynard Smith et al., 1993),
similar work remains to be done for RNA viruses.
Many taxonomic groupings of viruses ± for example both
the Togaviridae and the Coronaviridae ± include members that,
while clearly sharing homologous genes, differ in the order in
which these genes are organized along the genome, another
indication that recombination has been important in their
evolutionary history. Other cases ± exemplied by the haemagglutinin-
esterase gene known to be present in at least three
virus genera (Snijder et al., 1991) ± show recombination as the
engine driving modular evolution, whereby functional modules
from different sources are brought together to create new
viruses. The discovery of recombination in an increasing
number of viruses, in addition to presenting phylogenetic and
taxonomic difficulties, challenges the desirability of using short
sequence regions as markers for entire virus genomes (for
instance in molecular epidemiology studies) since they may
not accurately re¯ect true genetic or antigenic characteristics.
Evolutionary advantages of recombination
Theoretical explanations for the evolution of recombination
and hence some aspects of sexual reproduction tend to ®t into
one of two standard classes : (1) that it enables the creation and
spread of advantageous traits, and (2) that it permits the
removal of deleterious genes (for a review see Hurst & Peck,
1996). This second explanation is often linked to the notion of
`Muller's ratchet ' ± the random loss of those individuals in a
population having the fewest deleterious alleles (Muller, 1964).
Muller's ratchet predicts the gradual build-up of deleterious
alleles, asexual population. Experiments with RNA
viruses, one of only a handful of organisms in which this
hypothesis has actually been put to the test, have generally
supported its operation and shown decreased ®tness for
populations in which it occurs (Chao et al., 1992). Experimental
evidence (Chao et al., 1997) also shows that sex (in this case
reassortment) can reduce the mutational load in a population
and so help it escape from accumulated deleterious effects.
Although such direct experimental evidence has yet to
demonstrate a similar advantage for recombination, in principle
it too could serve to efficiently remove disadvantageous alleles
from a population by combining mutation-free parts of
different genomes. Indeed, suggestions have been made that
reassortment in segmented RNA viruses and recombination in
monopartite RNA viruses represent alternative evolutionary
strategies for genetic exchange in this group (Chao et al., 1992).
While this idea is fascinating, it is interesting to note that
reassortment and recombination are not mutually exclusive
and that several segmented viruses also experience recombination,
sometimes frequently. These include the bacteriophage
u6 (Mindich et al., 1992), rotaviruses (Suzuki et al., 1998),
in¯uenza A virus (Khatchikian et al., 1989), hantaviruses (Sibold
et al., 1999), ¯ock house virus (Li & Ball, 1993) and many plant
viruses (Bujarski & Kaesberg, 1986; Greene & Allison, 1994;
Robinson, 1994; Rott et al., 1991). As if to prove this point,
Masuta et al. (1998) recently reported an interspeci®c hybrid of
two cucomoviruses that arose by both reassortment and
Nonetheless, a great deal of evidence indicates that some
RNA viruses do benefit from the genome-purging effects of
recombination. A multitude of experimental studies have
shown that weak or even non-replicative mutant strains can
recombine to form viable, highly viruses. Examples include
the functional chimeras formed between nonreplicating RNAs
and DI RNAs of tombusviruses (White & Morris, 1994),
infectious recombinants produced by different combinations
of mutationally altered Sindbis virus RNAs (Raju et al.,
1995; Weiss & Schlesinger, 1991) and wild-type revertant
recombinants of Qb phage mutants (Palasingam & Shaklee,
1992) and of bromovirus mutants (Rao & Hall, 1993).
Plant viruses have also been observed to repair their
genomes by recombining with host transgene transcripts
(Borja et al., 1999; Gal-On et al., 1998; Greene & Allison,
1994; Rubio et al., 1999). Similarly, in one experiment with a
deletion mutant of mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) transfected
with a synthetic RNA that contained the deleted region
(Koetzner et al., 1992), and another with an in¯uenza A virus
mutant with a damaged neuraminidase gene (Bergmann et al.,
1992), recombination successfully repaired defective genes.
Studies of recombination in bacteriophages, too, indicate a
repair function for recombination (Mindich et al., 1994). RNA
recombination even appears to provide a telomerase-like
function by repairing the 3« ends of satellite RNAs of both
turnip crinkle virus (Burgyan & Garcõ!a-Arenal, 1998) and
cucumber mosaic virus (Simon & Nagy, 1996).
Unintentional ` natural experiments' with some viruses
point to the same conclusion. The frequent recovery of
recombinant isolates of poliovirus (Georgescu et al., 1994; Kew
& Nottay, 1984) and infectious bronchitis virus (Jia et al.,
1995; Kusters et al., 1990; Wang et al., 1994) that result from
recombination involving vaccine strains shows that recombination
has the potential to produce ` escape mutants' in
nature as well as in experiments. Recently, recombination has
also been detected in other RNA viruses for which multivalent
vaccines are in use or in trials (Holmes et al., 1999; Suzuki et al.,
1998; Worobey et al., 1999). We think the potential for
recombination to produce new pathogenic hybrid strains, and
the possible impact of such escape recombination, needs to be
carefully considered whenever multivalent live-attenuated
vaccines are used to control RNA viruses. Assumptions that
recombination either does not happen or is unimportant in
RNA viruses have a history of being proved wrong.
In addition to the evidence favouring a role for genetic
exchange in eliminating deleterious alleles, many recombinant
RNA virus strains provide ample indication that recombination
can generate beneficial new variation. In some viruses this new
variation is achieved by borrowing genetic material from their
hosts. One intriguing example of this is bovine viral diarrhoea
virus (BVDV), a pestivirus that recombines with host cellular
protein-coding RNA. As a result of virus±host recombinations,
cytopathogenic BVDVs can develop from non-cytopathogenic
ones and cause a lethal syndrome, mucosal disease, in the hosts
(Meyers et al., 1989). In¯uenza A virus has also been observed
to recombine with cellular RNA, resulting in increased
pathogenicity for the hybrid viruses (Khatchikian et al., 1989).
Recombination between virus and host genetic material
evidently occurs in plant viruses as well, as illustrated by a
luteovirus isolate with 5«-terminal sequence derived from a
chloroplast exon (Mayo & Jolly, 1991) and closteroviruses
which have acquired host cellular protein-coding genes (Dolja
et al., 1994) which are nonessential for replication and virion
production (Peremyslov et al., 1998).
A link between recombination and increased pathogenicity
has also been revealed in cases that do not involve recombination
with host genes. Template jumping during
replication in viruses infecting cats has produced, on multiple
occasions, the pathogenic strains known as feline infectious
peritonitis viruses (FIPVs) by altering asymptomatic feline
enteric coronaviruses, differing from them only by deletions of
around 100 bp in predictable locations (Vennema et al., 1998).
Another coronavirus, feline coronavirus (FCoV) type II,
appears to be a homologous (or aberrant homologous)
recombinant of FCoV type I and canine coronavirus
(Herrewegh et al., 1995). Like FIPVs, FCoV type II viruses may
have arisen on different occasions from separate recombination
events (Motokawa et al., 1996).
Experimental studies provide further signs of the ability of
recombination to generate useful, new variation. In one
particularly striking display of this, MS2 phage mutants lacking
the sequence for important stem-and-loop secondary structures
repeatedly reconstructed them via nonhomologous recombination
(Olsthoorn & van Duin, 1996).
Constraints on recombination
Recombination clearly plays a significant role in the
evolution of RNA viruses by generating genetic variation, by
reducing mutational load, and by producing new viruses. We
expect that with current advances in sequencing and sequence
analysis many more examples of hybrid viruses, produced by
recombination between different strains, will soon be found.
However, it is clearly not the case that all RNA viruses are
equally prone to recombination. It has still not been detected in
several viruses despite strenuous searches (e.g. Bilsel et al.,
1990), although some ± not otherwise known to recombine ±
nevertheless produce DI RNAs. Amongst those known to
produce hybrids, the frequency of recombinants detected in
natural or experimental studies varies markedly. Given the
potential advantages of recombination, why is there apparently
so much variation between viruses in its occurrence ? While it
is too soon to provide a de®nitive answer to this crucial
question, it is possible to dissect the process that gives rise to
recombinants and to consider the constraints that could act at
each stage to inhibit it. A simple model of recombination
between different RNA viruses, with possible constraints, is
presented in Fig. 1.
In a sense, recombinogenic viruses are all alike in that they
successfully pass through each stage outlined in the model.
Every non-recombining virus, on the other hand, is different in
its own way since constraints that block recombination could
act by breaking any link in the chain and could involve not just
viral genetic factors, but host and ecological factors particular
to that virus. The first prerequisite for successful recombination
(Fig. 1) is that an individual host must be infected by different
virus strains. [This is not quite true, of course, since (1)
recombination sometimes involves host RNA, (2) recombination
could occur between viruses that have diverged
within a clonally infected individual, and (3) evolutionarily
invisible recombination could occur between identical RNA
molecules.] Host coinfection might never occur with some
viruses simply because their divergent forms do not usually
overlap in space and time. Multivalent live-attenuated vaccines
CFDJ can be seen as potential risks in this context since they could
effectively release some viruses from this constraint. Host
factors could act at this stage too if, for instance, an immune
response reduces the window for simultaneous infection by
quickly clearing a virus, or prevents superinfection altogether
by blocking secondary infections.
Having successfully coinfected a single host, divergent
viruses must next coinfect a single cell if recombination is to
proceed. This step could be blocked by host factors, either by
an immune response that keeps virus numbers low enough to
prevent multiple infection of any individual cell, or by host cell
genetic factors that block entry of more than one virus particle
into a cell (Danis et al., 1993). Viral factors, interestingly, might
also enforce significant constraints at this stage of the model.
Recent evidence demonstrates that intracellular competition
can be costly to viruses that infect the same host cell (Turner
&Chao, 1998). Those that can keep cells to themselves
by limiting or preventing coinfection should be selectively
favoured, and many have evolved mechanisms to do just this
(Simon et al., 1990; Singh et al., 1997; Turner et al., 1999). One
of these, vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), is an RNA virus in
which recombination between different strains has not been
detected. Might superinfection exclusion be a constraint on
recombination in VSV? Another, the segmented bacteriophage
u6, seems to limit excessive superinfection but not to the
extreme of one-virus-per-cell that would preclude genetic
exchange. Instead, it appears to have evolved an optimal
coinfection limit of two to three viruses per cell, presumably to
balance the costs of intracellular competition with the bene®ts
of reassortment (Turner et al., 1999). Since the advantage (and
cost) of recombination in any particular virus will be mediated
by such factors as the selective pressure for novel variation, the
importance of interactions between different parts of the
genome, as well as the virus mutation rate and population size,
we should expect different optima (and therefore different
degrees of constraint) in different cases.
If divergent viruses manage to infect the same cell, the next
step is simply for one of them to replicate in the presence of the
RNA of the other. This is not necessarily inevitable even in
coinfected cells. The replication of the u6 RNAs, for example,
takes place within a procapsid and it is thought that the entry
of two different RNA molecules of the same genomic segment
into this sequestered environment is impossible or at least very
rare (Mindich et al., 1992). This could explain the lack of
homologous recombination in this phage. Thus the vagaries of
RNA replication in certain viruses could impose physical
constraints on the production of hybrids.
Template switching by the viral replicase, the mechanism
whereby recombinant RNA molecules are actually created,
may also be limited by physical constraints. The negativestrand RNA viruses,
for example, whose genomes are packaged
into ribonucleoprotein structures by association
with N protein, may be less permissive than other RNA viruses
to copy±choice recombination. And perhaps the most important
physical constraint on template switching ± particularly
with respect to homologous recombination ± is simply
the extent of sequence dissimilarity between potentially
recombining genomes. Finally, genetic variation in the susceptibility
of the viral replicase to jumping (Bujarski & Nagy,
1996) no doubt plays a central role in determining how often
and by what mechanism particular viruses recombine.
Recombination occurs when these ®rst four steps are
ful®lled. Whether incipient recombinants persist, however,
depends on the fifth and final step, the selective separation of
the wheat from the chaff among hybrids. Although there is
strong evidence that genetic exchange can offer advantages in
some circumstances, random recombination no doubt destroys
more good alleles than it creates. PCR studies which have
made possible the characterization of the initial products of
recombination ± those present prior to removal by selection
(Banner & Lai, 1991; Desport et al., 1998; Jarvis & Kirkegaard,
1992) ± have produced important insights. Banner and Lai's
study of coronaviruses (1991), for example, showed that the
initial recombination events in their MHV system were almost
entirely randomly distributed along the sequence investigated.
It was only after passage through cell culture, with the
opportunity for selection to remove less variants, that
crossover sites became ` localized ' to just a small area of the
region examined. With enough passages, the recombinants
disappeared altogether. These results indicated that `recombination
hotspots ' can actually be the result of natural selection
on a pool of random recombination crossover junctions, as
opposed to elevated recombination rates in particular regions.
Crucially, they also suggested that recombination may be
more common than often assumed, but may go undetected
because of the action of strong purifying selection which will
remove new, deleterious combinations of mutations. In light of
these studies it is clear that what is meant by ` recombination
frequency' ± a term usually used without specified units ±
depends critically on whether we are assessing recombination
events before or after selection has acted. A virus which often
produces hybrid RNAs under laboratory conditions may very
rarely ± or even never ± be found to recombine in nature. This
difference is analogous to the important distinction between
the rate of mutation and the rate of substitution.
Negative selection against non-functional hybrids or those
with decreased fitness may impose the strongest constraints of
all on the appearance of recombinants. In viruses for which the
evolutionary costs of recombination outweigh the benefi ts,
though they may be mechanistically capable of genetic
exchange, strong selection will guarantee the elimination of
Determining the constraints that operate on recombination
offers a promising path to a fuller understanding of its
importance in the evolution of RNA viruses. However, outlines
CFEA of the big picture are already clearly visible. It seems certain
that genetic exchange plays a key role in several virus groups
and that it has shaped a good deal of the diversity ± both
ancient and recent ± that exists in them. Thus, evolutionary
knowledge about recombination impacts on many aspects of
the study of RNA viruses, from the broadest investigations of
virus taxonomy, to the finest details of molecular epidemiology
and vaccine design. A ¯ood of viral gene sequence data and the
availability of new and powerful phylogenetic methods is
making the detection and characterization of recombination
ever easier, and the list of viruses showing recombination
continues to grow. The evidence for recombination, not only
between closely related viruses but also among distantly
related viruses, positive-sense and negative-sense viruses, DI
RNAs and viruses, satellite RNAs and viruses, and even with
host RNAs, suggests that almost any genetic material can be
grist for the polymerase's mill. Of all the tricks up the viral
evolutionary sleeve, surely recombination is one of the most
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