A genetic background with low mutational robustness is associated with increased adaptability to a novel host in an RNA virus

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Although mutational robustness is central to many evolutionary processes, its relationship to evolvability remains poorly understood and has been very rarely tested experimentally. Here, we measure the evolvability of Vesicular stomatitis virus in two genetic backgrounds with different levels of mutational robustness. We passaged the viruses into a novel cell type to model a host-jump episode, quantified changes in infectivity and fitness in the new host, evaluated the cost of adaptation in the original host and analyzed the genetic basis of this adaptation. Lineages evolved from the less robust genetic background demonstrated increased adaptability, paid similar costs of adaptation to the new host and fixed approximately the same number of mutations as their more robust counterparts. Theory predicts that robustness can promote evolvability only in systems where large sets of genotypes are connected by effectively neutral mutations. We argue that this condition might not be fulfilled generally in RNA viruses.

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