Recent results have revealed novel features in the process of antigenic diversification of FMDV. (i) Antigenic variation is not necessarily the result of immune selection. (ii) Single, critical amino acid replacements may either have a minor effect on antigenic specificity or cause a drastic antigenic change affecting many epitopes on an antigenic site. (iii) The effect of such a critical replacement may be suppressed by additional substitutions at neighbouring sites. (iv) Antigenic diversification does not necessarily involve net accumulation of amino acid substitutions over time. We review evidence that some of these features apply also to other riboviruses and retroviruses. A model is proposed to relate antigenic variation without immune selection to the quasispecies structure of RNA virus populations.


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