Pattern of nucleotide substitution and the extent of purifying selection in retroviruses

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The patterns of point mutation and nucleotide substitution are inferred from nucleotide differences in three coding and two noncoding regions of retroviral genomes. Evidence is presented in favor of the view that the majority of mutations accumulate at the reverse transcription stage. Purifying selection is apparently very weak at the amino acid level, and almost nonexistent between synonymous codons. The pattern of purifying selection obeys the rules previously established in vertebrates [Gojobori T, Li W-H, Graur D (1982) J Mol Evol 18:360-369]; i.e., the magnitude of purifying selection at the amino acid level is negatively correlated with Grantham's [Grantham R (1974) Science 185: 862-864] chemical distances between the amino acids interchanged. We refute Modiano et al.'s [Modiano G, Battistuzzi G, Motulsky AG (1981) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 78:1110-1114] hypothesis, according to which the pattern of mutation is preadapted to buffer against deleterious mutations. On the contrary, the pattern of mutation reduces the level of conservativeness from that imposed on the amino acid substitution pattern by the structure of the genetic code. The extraordinarily high rate of nucleotide substitution in retroviruses in comparison with that in other organisms is apparently caused by an extremely high rate of mutation coupled with a lack of stringent purifying selection at both the codon and the amino acid levels.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)221-231
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Molecular Evolution
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1985
Externally publishedYes


  • Grantham's chemical distances
  • Nucleotide substitution
  • Purifying selection
  • Retroviruses
  • Reverse transcription


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