RNA virus error catastrophe: Direct molecular test by using ribavirin

Shane Crotty, Craig E. Cameron, Raul Andino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

730 Scopus citations


RNA viruses evolve rapidly. One source of this ability to rapidly change is the apparently high mutation frequency in RNA virus populations. A high mutation frequency is a central tenet of the quasispecies theory. A corollary of the quasispecies theory postulates that, given their high mutation frequency, animal RNA viruses may be susceptible to error catastrophe, where they undergo a sharp drop in viability after a modest increase in mutation frequency. We recently showed that the important broad-spectrum antiviral drug ribavirin (currently used to treat hepatitis C virus infections, among others) is an RNA virus mutagen, and we proposed that ribavirin's antiviral effect is by forcing RNA viruses into error catastrophe. However, a direct demonstration of error catastrophe has not been made for ribavirin or any RNA virus mutagen. Here we describe a direct demonstration of error catastrophe by using ribavirin as the mutagen and poliovirus as a model RNA virus. We demonstrate that ribavirin's antiviral activity is exerted directly through lethal mutagenesis of the viral genetic material. A 99.3% loss in viral genome infectivity is observed after a single round of virus infection in ribavirin concentrations sufficient to cause a 9.7-fold increase in mutagenesis. Compiling data on both the mutation levels and the specific infectivities of poliovirus genomes produced in the presence of ribavirin, we have constructed a graph of error catastrophe showing that normal polio-virus indeed exists at the edge of viability. These data suggest that RNA virus mutagens may represent a promising new class of antiviral drugs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6895-6900
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 5 2001

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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