The study of rates of nucleotide substitution in RNA viruses is central to our understanding of their evolution. Herein we report a comprehensive analysis of substitution rates in 50 RNA viruses using a recently developed maximum likelihood phylogenetic method. This analysis revealed a significant relationship between genetic divergence and isolation time for an extensive array of RNA viruses, although more rate variation was usually present among lineages than would be expected under the constraints of a molecular clock. Despite the lack of a molecular clock, the range of statistically significant variation in overall substitution rates was surprisingly narrow for those viruses where a significant relationship between genetic divergence and time was found, as was the case when synonymous sites were considered alone, where the molecular clock was rejected less frequently. An analysis of the ecological and genetic factors that might explain this rate variation revealed some evidence of significantly lower substitution rates in vector-borne viruses, as well as a weak correlation between rate and genome length. Finally, a simulation study revealed that our maximum likelihood estimates of substitution rates are valid, even if the molecular clock is rejected, provided that sufficiently large data sets are analyzed.

Original publication




Journal article


J Mol Evol

Publication Date





156 - 165


Amino Acid Substitution, Computer Simulation, Databases, Nucleic Acid, Evolution, Molecular, Genome, Viral, Likelihood Functions, Models, Genetic, Phylogeny, RNA Viruses, Sequence Alignment