Multiple infection dynamics has pronounced effects on the fitness of RNA viruses

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Several factors play a role during the replication and transmission of RNA viruses. First, as a consequence of their enormous mutation rate, complex mixtures of genomes are generated immediately after infection of a new host. Secondly, differences in growth and competition rates drive the selection of certain genetic variants within an infected host. Thirdly, but not less important, a random sampling occurs at the moment of viral infectious passage from an infected to a healthy host. In addition, the availability of hosts also influences the fate of a given viral genotype. When new hosts are scarce, different viral genotypes might infect the same host, adding an extra complexity to the competition among genetic variants. We have employed a two-fold approach to analyse the role played by each of these factors in the evolution of RNA viruses. First, we have derived a model that takes into account all the preceding factors. This model employs the classic Lotka-Volterra competition equations but it also incorporates the effect of mutation during RNA replication, the effect of the stochastic sampling at the moment of infectious passage among hosts and, the effect of the type of infection (single, coinfection or superinfection). Secondly, the predictions of the model have been tested in an in vitro evolution experiment. Both theoretical and experimental results show that in infection passages with coinfection viral fitness increased more than in single infections. In contrast, infection passages with superinfection did not differ from the single infection. The coinfection frequency also affected the outcome: the larger the proportion of viruses coinfecting a host, the larger increase in fitness observed.

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