Mutation rate is a phenotypic trait that evolves. The process of evolution of such kind of traits are often referred to as evolvability. I am wondering about the evolution of the mutation rates in viruses. For the purpose of this question, I'll focus only on viruses that do not possess DNA polymerase. Because the replication of the viral DNA is performed by the molecular machinery of the host cell (eukaryote or not) it seems rather impossible to me for a virus to evolve its mutation rate. Is it correct?

  • Do we have any evidence of adaptive mutation rate in viruses?

  • Is there a correlation between the mutation rate of the host and the mutation rate of the virus?

  • Could the virus evolve some structure (or codon bias) of their DNA/RNA in order to adapt their mutation rate?

  • Is there another mechanism allowing a virus lineage to adapt their mutation rate?

  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by "adaptive mutation"? $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the question, I though I might have been unclear. I meant "adaptive mutation rate". The trait is the "mutation rate" and I am asking whether this trait has been shown to evolve "in an adaptive manner" or evolve in order to reach some optimum. This might probably also be phrased by: "Do mutation rate in viruses genetically coded" Does it make sense to you? $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ I think so, yes. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ Just as a point of correction, some viruses technically encode viral DNA polymerases. Reverse transcriptase in retroviruses is a DNA polymerase, and Hepatitis B (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hepatitis_B_virus_DNA_polymerase) also has a DNA polymerase, although admittedly hepadnaviruses are weird. $\endgroup$
    – Amory
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 22:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Armory Very good point, thank you! I edited my question in consequence. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 23:01

1 Answer 1


Really interesting question. I am not sure, if the mutation rate is something "actively done" by the virus. I think its more a byproduct of vast replication after taking over the host cell. Mutations with a negative effect are deleted, those with neutral effects will be there, and those with positive mutations will be selected for. This paper looks interesting in this context: "Viral Mutation Rates". Looking for related publications on the site, I found this two:

The whole list is here.

Answering your second question: There is obviously no connection between the mutation rate of the virus and the host. I have found this paper ("Rates of Spontaneous Mutation") which gives some pretty interesting numbers. In short: The rate of mutation for DNA viruses is much higher than for eukaryotic cells and for RNA viruses 2-4 orders of magnitude higher than for DNA viruses.

At least RNA viruses encode for some own polymerases, the reverse transcriptase. Depending on which these have a proof-reading (exonuclease) function they induce more or less errors.


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