The operator hairpin ahead of the replicase gene in RNA bacteriophage MS2 contains overlapping signals for binding the coat protein and ribosomes. Coat protein binding inhibits further translation of the gene and forms the first step in capsid formation. The hairpin sequence was partially randomized to assess the importance of this structure element for the bacteriophage and to monitor alternative solutions that would evolve on the passaging of mutant phages. The evolutionary reconstruction of the operator failed in the majority of mutants. Instead, a poor imitation developed containing only some of the recognition signals for the coat protein. Three mutants were of particular interest in that they contained double nonsense codons in the lysis reading frame that runs through the operator hairpin. The simultaneous reversion of two stop codons into sense codons has a very low probability of occurring. Therefore the phage solved the problem by deleting the nonsense signals and, in fact, the complete operator, except for the initiation codon of the replicase gene. Several revertants were isolated with activities ranging from 1% to 20% of wild type. The operator, long thought to be a critical regulator, now appears to be a dispensable element. In addition, the results indicate how RNA viruses can be forced to step back to an attenuated form.
- RNA bacteriophage