Open Access Research article

Electrophoretic mobility confirms reassortment bias among geographic isolates of segmented RNA phages

Samuel L Díaz-Muñoz1*, Olivier Tenaillon2, Daniel Goldhill3, Kristen Brao3, Paul E Turner3 and Lin Chao1

Author Affiliations

1 Section of Ecology, Behavior and Evolution, University of California San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, Muir Building 3155, La Jolla, CA 92093-0116, USA

2 Inserm U722, Faculté de Médecine Xavier Bichat, 16, rue Henri Huchard, Paris 75018, France

3 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:206  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-206

Published: 24 September 2013



Sex presents evolutionary costs and benefits, leading to the expectation that the amount of genetic exchange should vary in conditions with contrasting cost-benefit equations. Like eukaryotes, viruses also engage in sex, but the rate of genetic exchange is often assumed to be a relatively invariant property of a particular virus. However, the rates of genetic exchange can vary within one type of virus according to geography, as highlighted by phylogeographic studies of cystoviruses. Here we merge environmental microbiology with experimental evolution to examine sex in a diverse set of cystoviruses, consisting of the bacteriophage ϕ6 and its relatives. To quantify reassortment we manipulated – by experimental evolution – electrophoretic mobility of intact virus particles for use as a phenotypic marker to estimate genetic exchange.


We generated descendants of ϕ6 that exhibited fast and slow mobility during gel electrophoresis. We identified mutations associated with slow and fast phenotypes using whole genome sequencing and used crosses to establish the production of hybrids of intermediate mobility. We documented natural variation in electrophoretic mobility among environmental isolates of cystoviruses and used crosses against a common fast mobility ϕ6 strain to monitor the production of hybrids with intermediate mobility, thus estimating the amount of genetic exchange. Cystoviruses from different geographic locations have very different reassortment rates when measured against ϕ6, with viruses isolated from California showing higher reassortment rates than those from the Northeastern US.


The results confirm that cystoviruses from different geographic locations have remarkably different reassortment rates –despite similar genome structure and replication mechanisms– and that these differences are in large part due to sexual reproduction. This suggests that particular viruses may indeed exhibit diverse sexual behavior, but wide geographic sampling, across varying environmental conditions may be necessary to characterize the full repertoire. Variation in reassortment rates can assist in the delineation of viral populations and is likely to provide insight into important viral evolutionary dynamics including the rate of coinfection, virulence, and host range shifts. Electrophoretic mobility may be an indicator of important determinants of fitness and the techniques herein can be applied to the study of other viruses.

Sex; Population structure; Hybridization; Cooperation; Experimental evolution; Ecology