Latest study finds that viruses may evolve more quickly than previously thought

Latest study finds that viruses may evolve more quickly than previously thought


It seems viruses may be better at adapting to their host environments than previously thought.

A new study released Friday by the Michigan State University finds that viruses may be evolving and adapting more quickly than initially thought.

Scientists leading the study announced they have for the first time evidence of how the virus called “Lambda” evolved to find a new way to attack host cells, an innovation that took four mutations to accomplish.

It is the first time that the researchers have described a way through which viruses evolved a novel way to infect people, which could reveal better means of protecting against some of the world’s most notorious viruses. Researchers said that they studied a virus which is known as a lambda. It infects the gut bacterium Escherichia coli.

Michigan State University scientists described how viruses evolved a new way of infecting cells in little more than two weeks, far sooner than initially thought. In a series of experiments, the bacteria-infecting viruses repeatedly acquired the ability to attack their host bacteria through a different “doorway,” or receptor on the bacteria’s cellular membrane, according to Justin Meyer, the lead researcher and a graduate student.

Through research conducted at, Michigan State University’s National Science Foundation Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, Meyer and his colleagues’ ability to duplicate the results implied that adaptation by natural selection, or survival of the fittest, had an important role in the virus’ evolution.

“We were surprised at first to see Lambda evolve this new function, this ability to attack and enter the cell through a new receptor – and it happened so fast,” the Michigan State University graduate student said in a statement. “But when we re-ran the evolution experiment, we saw the same thing happen over and over.”

This paper follows recent news that scientists in the United States and the Netherlands produced a deadly version of bird flu, which researchers say will not be published for a number of months following concerns that terrorists may use the research.

In December a U.S. advisory board asked two leading journals, Nature and Science, to withhold details of both studies for fear it could be used by bioterrorists. The journals have accepted the studies but have not yet said if they will publish them in full.

Even though bird flu is a mere five mutations away from becoming transmissible between humans, it is highly unlikely the virus could naturally obtain all of the beneficial mutations all at once. However, it might evolve sequentially, gaining benefits one-by-one, if conditions are favorable at each step, say researchers.

Additional authors of the paper include Devin Dobias, former MSU undergraduate (now a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis), Ryan Quick, MSU undergraduate, Jeff Barrick, a former Lenski lab researcher now on the faculty at the University of Texas, and Joshua Weitz on the faculty at Georgia Tech.

Funding for the research was provided in part by the National Science Foundation and MSU AgBioResearch.