, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 95-108

Searching for the Advantages of Virus Sex

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Abstract

Sex (genetic exchange) is a nearly universal phenomenon in biological populations. But this is surprising given the costs associated with sex. For example, sex tends to break apart co-adapted genes, and sex causes a female to inefficiently contribute only half the genes to her offspring. Why then did sex evolve? One famous model poses that sex evolved to combat Muller's ratchet, the mutational load that accrues when harmful mutations drift to high frequencies in populations of small size. In contrast, the Fisher-Muller Hypothesis predicts that sex evolved to promote genetic variation that speeds adaptation in novel environments. Sexual mechanisms occur in viruses, which feature high rates of deleterious mutation and frequent exposure to novel or changing environments. Thus, confirmation of one or both hypotheses would shed light on the selective advantages of virus sex. Experimental evolution has been used to test these ZFS25245ZFS25245classic models in the RNA bacteriophage φ6, a virus that experiences sex via reassortment of its chromosomal segments. Empirical data suggest that sex might have originated in φ6 to assist in purging deleterious mutations from the genome. However, results do not support the idea that sex evolved because it provides beneficial variation in novel environments. Rather, experiments show that too much sex can be bad for φ6; promiscuity allows selfish viruses to evolve and spread their inferior genes to subsequent generations. Here I discuss various explanations for the evolution of segmentation in RNA viruses, and the added cost of sex when large numbers of viruses co-infect the same cell.