Structural constraints on RNA virus evolution.
Simmonds P., Smith DB.
The recently discovered hepatitis G virus (HGV) or GB virus C (GBV-C) is widely distributed in human populations, and homologues such as HGV/GBV-CCPZ and GBV-A are found in a variety of different primate species. Both epidemiological and phylogenetic analyses support the hypothesis that GB viruses coevolved with their primate hosts, although their degree of sequence similarity appears incompatible with the high rate of sequence change of HGV/GBV-C over short observation periods. Comparison of complete coding sequences (8,500 bases) of different genotypes of HGV/GBV-C showed an excess of invariant synonymous sites (at 23% of all codons) compared with the frequency expected by chance (10%). To investigate the hypothesis that RNA secondary-structure formation through internal base pairing limited sequence variability at these sites, an algorithm was developed to detect covariant sites among HGV/GBV-C sequences of different genotypes. At least 35 covariant sites that were spatially associated with potential stem-loop structures were detected, whose positions correlated with positions in the genome that showed reductions in synonymous variability. Although the functional roles of the predicted secondary structures remain unclear, the restriction of sequence change imposed by secondary-structure formation provides a mechanism for differences in net rate of accumulation of nucleotide substitutions at different sites. However, the resulting disparity between short- and long-term rates of sequence change of HGV/GBV-C violates the assumptions of the "molecular clock." This places a major restriction on the use of nucleotide or amino acid sequence comparisons to calculate times of divergence of other viruses evolving under the same structural constraints as GB viruses.