Avoidance of Protein Fold Disruption in Natural Virus Recombinants

Author Summary The exchange of genetic material between different virus species, called inter-species recombination, has the potential to generate, within a single genome replication cycle, an almost unimaginable number of genetically distinct virus strains, including many that might cause deadly new human, animal, or plant diseases. Many fear that inter-species recombination could provide viruses with quick access to evolutionary innovations such as broader host ranges, altered tissue tropisms, or increased severities. However, mounting evidence suggests that recombination is not an unconstrained process and that most inter-species recombinants that occur in nature are probably defective. It is suspected that networks of coevolved interactions between different parts of virus genomes and their encoded proteins must be kept intact for newly formed inter-species recombinants to have any chance of out-competing their parents. One category of coevolved interaction is that between contacting amino acids within the 3-D structures of folded proteins. Here we examine the distributions of recombination events across the genomes of a group of rampantly recombining plant viruses and find very good evidence that this class of interaction tends to be preserved amongst recombinant sequences sampled from nature. This indicates that selection against misfolded proteins strongly influences the survival of natural recombinants.