Empirical Complexities in the Genetic Foundations of Lethal Mutagenesis
James J. Bull, Paul Joyce, Eric Gladstone, Ian J. Molineux


From population genetics theory, elevating the mutation rate of a large population should progressively reduce average fitness. If the fitness decline is large enough, the population will go extinct in a process known as lethal mutagenesis. Lethal mutagenesis has been endorsed in the virology literature as a promising approach to viral treatment, and several in vitro studies have forced viral extinction with high doses of mutagenic drugs. Yet only one empirical study has tested the genetic models underlying lethal mutagenesis, and the theory failed on even a qualitative level. Here we provide a new level of analysis of lethal mutagenesis by developing and evaluating models specifically tailored to empirical systems that may be used to test the theory. We first quantify a bias in the estimation of a critical parameter and consider whether that bias underlies the previously observed lack of concordance between theory and experiment. We then consider a seemingly ideal protocol that avoids this bias—mutagenesis of virions—but find that it is hampered by other problems. Finally, results that reveal difficulties in the mere interpretation of mutations assayed from double-strand genomes are derived. Our analyses expose unanticipated complexities in testing the theory. Nevertheless, the previous failure of the theory to predict experimental outcomes appears to reside in evolutionary mechanisms neglected by the theory (e.g., beneficial mutations) rather than from a mismatch between the empirical setup and model assumptions. This interpretation raises the specter that naive attempts at lethal mutagenesis may augment adaptation rather than retard it.

  • Received June 10, 2013.
  • Accepted July 29, 2013.

Available freely online through the author-supported open access option.

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