RNA viruses evolve as complex distributions of mutants termed viral quasispecies. For this reason it is relevant to explore those environmental parameters that favour the selective advantage of some viral subpopulations over others. In the present study we provide direct evidence that the relative fitness of two competing viral subpopulations may depend on the multiplicity of infection (m.o.i.). Two closely related subpopulations of foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) of serotype C, which differed in their history of cytolytic passages in BHK-21 cells, were subjected to growth-competition experiments in BHK-21 cells. One of the populations, termed S, was found to have a selective advantage over the other population, termed L, only when the competition passages were carried out at low m.o.i. In contrast, both populations, L and S, coexisted during serial passages carried out at high m.o.i. No differences between S and L were detected in assays of inhibition of infectivity by synthetic peptides, in cell binding-competition experiments, or in virulence for BHK-21 cells. However, FMDV S displayed increased heparin binding compared with L, and L higher virulence for Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells than S. These results with FMDV suggest that small differences in the interaction of the virus with the host cell may contribute to an m.o.i.-dependent selective advantage of one viral subpopulation over a closely related subpopulation. Therefore, different viral mutants from quasispecies replicating in vivo may be selected depending on the number of variant viruses relative to the number of susceptible cells.


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