Wu, B. L.,Zwart, M. P.,Sanchez-Navarro, J. A.,Elena, S. F.

The existence of multipartite viruses is an intriguing mystery in evolutionary virology. Several hypotheses suggest benefits that should outweigh the costs of a reduced transmission efficiency and of segregation of coadapted genes associated with encapsidating each segment into a different particle. Advantages range from increasing genome size despite high mutation rates, faster replication, more efficient selection resulting from reassortment during mixed infections, better regulation of gene expression, or enhanced virion stability and cell-to-cell movement. However, support for these hypotheses is scarce. Here we report experiments testing whether an evolutionary stable equilibrium exists for the three genomic RNAs of Alfalfa mosaic virus (AMV). Starting infections with different segment combinations, we found that the relative abundance of each segment evolves towards a constant ratio. Population genetic analyses show that the segment ratio at this equilibrium is determined by frequency-dependent selection. Replication of RNAs 1 and 2 was coupled and collaborative, whereas the replication of RNA 3 interfered with the replication of the other two. We found that the equilibrium solution is slightly different for the total amounts of RNA produced and encapsidated, suggesting that competition exists between all RNAs during encapsidation. Finally, we found that the observed equilibrium appears to be host-species dependent.