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In many viral infections, a large number of different genetic variants can coexist within a host, leading to more virulent infections that are better able to evolve antiviral resistance and adapt to new hosts. But how is this diversity maintained? Why do faster-growing variants not outcompete slower-growing variants, and erode this diversity? One hypothesis is if there are mutually beneficial interactions between variants, with host cells infected by multiple different viral genomes producing more, or more effective, virions. We modelled this hypothesis with both mathematical models and simulations, and found that moderate levels of beneficial coinfection can maintain high levels of coexistence, even when coinfection is relatively rare, and when there are significant fitness differences between competing variants. Rare variants are more likely to be coinfecting with a different variant, and hence beneficial coinfection increases the relative fitness of rare variants through negative frequency dependence, and maintains diversity. We further find that coexisting variants sometimes reach unequal frequencies, depending on the extent to which different variants benefit from coinfection, and the ratio of variants which leads to the most productive infected cells. These factors could help drive the evolution of defective interfering particles, and help to explain why the different segments of multipartite viruses persist at different equilibrium frequencies.

Original publication




Journal article


Virus Evol

Publication Date





coinfection, diversity, evolution, frequency dependence, multipartite, phenotype mixing