Evolution of host specificity drives reproductive isolation among RNA viruses.

Evolution 61:2614-2622.
Year of Publication: 
Duffy, S., C.L. Burch, P.E. Turner.

Ecological speciation hypotheses claim that assortative mating evolves as a consequence of divergent natural selection for ecologically important traits. Reproductive isolation is expected to be particularly likely to evolve by this mechanism in species such as phytophagous insects that mate in the habitats where they eat. We tested this expectation by monitoring the evolution of reproductive isolation in laboratory populations of an RNA virus that undergoes genetic exchange only when multiple virus genotypes co-infect the same host. We subjected four populations of the RNA bacteriophage 6 to 150 generations of natural selection on a novel host. Although there was no direct selection acting on host range in our experiment, three out of the four populations lost the ability to infect one or more alternative hosts. In the most extreme case, one of the populations evolved a host range that does not contain any of the hosts infectible by the wild type 6. Whole genome sequencing confirmed that the resulting reproductive isolation was due to a single nucleotide change, highlighting the ease with which an emerging RNA virus can decouple its evolutionary fate from that of its ancestor. Our results uniquely demonstrate the evolution of reproductive isolation in allopatric experimental populations. Furthermore, our data confirm the biological credibility of simple ‘no-gene’ mechanisms of assortative mating, in which this trait arises as a pleiotropic effect of genes responsible for ecological adaptation.