Single-cell mutation rate of turnip crinkle virus (-)-strand replication intermediates

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Viruses with single-stranded, positive-sense (+) RNA genomes incur high numbers of errors during replication, thereby creating diversified genome populations from which new, better adapted viral variants can emerge. However, a definitive error rate is known for a relatively few (+) RNA plant viruses, due to challenges to account for perturbations caused by natural selection and/or experimental set-ups. To address these challenges, we developed a new approach that exclusively profiled errors in the (-)-strand replication intermediates of turnip crinkle virus (TCV), in singly infected cells. A series of controls and safeguards were devised to ensure errors inherent to the experimental process were accounted for. This approach permitted the estimation of a TCV error rate of 8.47 X 10 −5 substitution per nucleotide site per cell infection. Importantly, the characteristic error distribution pattern among the 50 copies of 2,363-base-pair cDNA fragments predicted that nearly all TCV (-) strands were products of one replication cycle per cell. Furthermore, some of the errors probably elevated error frequencies by lowering the fidelity of TCV RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, and/or permitting occasional re-replication of progeny genomes. In summary, by profiling errors in TCV (-)-strand intermediates incurred during replication in single cells, this study provided strong support for a stamping machine mode of replication employed by a (+) RNA virus.

Author Summary

Most (+) RNA viruses introduce replication errors at relatively high frequencies. As a result, it is of vital importance for these viruses to purge lethal errors in a timely manner. TCV, a plant-infecting small (+) RNA virus, was proposed to encode a Bottleneck, Isolate, Amplify, Select (BIAS) mechanism that compel swift clearance of lethal errors by bottlenecking the number of replicating genome copies to one per cell. A crucial prediction of this BIAS model is that such bottlenecking also acts on progeny genome copies, preventing them from repeating replication in the cells of their own genesis. The current study tested this prediction by developing a carefully controlled, readily reproducible approach to profile errors and error distributions in (-)-stranded replication intermediates of TCV. We found that most of replication-generated (-) strands descended from the primary (+) strands through a single replication cycle. This finding adds fresh support to the BIAS model.

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