Infectivity studies with highly infectious RNA inocula generated by ribozyme cleavage were used to compare the biological properties of three apparently nonviable mutants of potato spindle tuber viroid (PSTVd). One of these mutants (PSTVd-P) contains three nucleotide substitutions in the left terminal loop, and mechanical inoculation of tomato seedlings with RNA transcripts at levels equivalent to 10(3)-10(5) times the ID50 for PSTVd-Intermediate failed to result in systemic infection. Viable progeny containing a spontaneous C-->G change at position 4 could, however, be recovered from transgenic Nicotiana benthamiana plants that constitutively expressed PSTVd-P RNA. The initial mutations in PSTVd-P led to an overall weakening of its native structure in vitro, and the precisely-full-length molecule released by ribozyme cleavage in vivo was also unstable. Even RT-PCR analysis failed to reveal detectable amounts of circularized PSTVd-P among the RNAs isolated from uninfected plants. Predicted stabilizing effects of a spontaneous mutation at position 4 suggest that the appearance of viable progeny was dependent on a combination of events: errors by host RNA polymerase II during transcription of the mutant transgene coupled with a strong selective pressure against alterations in the native structure of PSTVd.


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