Viral mutation rates

Rafael Sanjuán, Miguel R. Nebot, Nicola Chirico, Louis M. Mansky, Robert Belshaw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

874 Scopus citations


Accurate estimates of virus mutation rates are important to understand the evolution of the viruses and to combat them. However, methods of estimation are varied and often complex. Here, we critically review over 40 original studies and establish criteria to facilitate comparative analyses. The mutation rates of 23 viruses are presented as substitutions per nucleotide per cell infection (s/n/c) and corrected for selection bias where necessary, using a new statistical method. The resulting rates range from 10-8 to10 -6 s/n/c for DNA viruses and from 10-6 to 10-4 s/n/c for RNA viruses. Similar to what has been shown previously for DNA viruses, there appears to be a negative correlation between mutation rate and genome size among RNA viruses, but this result requires further experimental testing. Contrary to some suggestions, the mutation rate of retroviruses is not lower than that of other RNA viruses. We also show that nucleotide substitutions are on average four times more common than insertions/deletions (indels). Finally, we provide estimates of the mutation rate per nucleotide per strand copying, which tends to be lower than that per cell infection because some viruses undergo several rounds of copying per cell, particularly double-stranded DNA viruses. A regularly updated virus mutation rate data set will be available at

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9733-9748
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 2010


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