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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Quasispecies-like behavior observed in catalytic RNA populations evolving in a test tube

Carolina Díaz Arenas and Niles Lehman*

Author Affiliations

Department of Chemistry, Portland State University, PO Box 751, Portland, Oregon, 97207, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:80  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-80

Published: 23 March 2010



During the RNA World, molecular populations were probably very small and highly susceptible to the force of strong random drift. In conjunction with Muller's Ratchet, this would have imposed difficulties for the preservation of the genetic information and the survival of the populations. Mechanisms that allowed these nascent populations to overcome this problem must have been advantageous.


Using continuous in vitro evolution experimentation with an increased mutation rate imposed by MnCl2, it was found that clonal 100-molecule populations of ribozymes clearly exhibit certain characteristics of a quasispecies. This is the first time this has been seen with a catalytic RNA. Extensive genotypic sampling from two replicate lineages was gathered and phylogenetic networks were constructed to elucidate the structure of the evolving RNA populations. A common distribution was found in which a mutant sequence was present at high frequency, surrounded by a cloud of mutant with lower frequencies. This is a typical distribution of quasispecies. Most of the mutants in these clouds were connected by short Hamming distance values, indicating their close relatedness.


The quasispecies nature of mutant RNA clouds facilitates the recovery of genotypes under pressure of being removed from the population by random drift. The empirical populations therefore evolved a genotypic resiliency despite a high mutation rate by adopting the characteristics of quasispecies, implying that primordial RNA pools could have used this strategy to avoid extinction.