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The rapid evolution of RNA viruses has been long considered to result from a combination of high copying error frequencies during RNA replication, short generation times and the consequent extensive fixation of neutral or adaptive changes over short periods. While both the identities and sites of mutations are typically modelled as being random, recent investigations of sequence diversity of SARS coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) have identified a preponderance of C->U transitions, proposed to be driven by an APOBEC-like RNA editing process. The current study investigated whether this phenomenon could be observed in datasets of other RNA viruses. Using a 5% divergence filter to infer directionality, 18 from 36 datasets of aligned coding region sequences from a diverse range of mammalian RNA viruses (including Picornaviridae, Flaviviridae, Matonaviridae, Caliciviridae and Coronaviridae) showed a >2-fold base composition normalised excess of C->U transitions compared to U->C (range 2.1x-7.5x), with a consistently observed favoured 5' U upstream context. The presence of genome scale RNA secondary structure (GORS) was the only other genomic or structural parameter significantly associated with C->U/U->C transition asymmetries by multivariable analysis (ANOVA), potentially reflecting RNA structure dependence of sites targeted for C->U mutations. Using the association index metric, C->U changes were specifically over-represented at phylogenetically uninformative sites, potentially paralleling extensive homoplasy of this transition reported in SARS-CoV-2. Although mechanisms remain to be functionally characterised, excess C->U substitutions accounted for 11-14% of standing sequence variability of structured viruses and may therefore represent a potent driver of their sequence diversification and longer-term evolution.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS pathogens

Publication Date





Nuffield Department of Medicine, Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen Research, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom.