Conventional and molecular epidemiologic studies have confirmed the ability of infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) to rapidly evolve and successfully circumvent extensive vaccination programs implemented since the early 1950s. IBV evolution has often been explained as variation in gene frequencies as if evolution were driven by genetic drift alone. However, the mechanisms regulating the evolution of IBV include both the generation of genetic diversity and the selection process. IBV's generation of genetic diversity has been extensively investigated and ultimately involves mutations and recombination events occurring during viral replication. The relevance of the selection process has been further understood more recently by identifying genetic and phenotypic differences between IBV populations prior to, and during, replication in the natural host. Accumulating evidence suggests that multiple environmental forces within the host, including immune responses (or lack thereof) and affinity for cell receptors, as well as physical and biochemical conditions, are responsible for the selection process. Some scientists have used or adopted the related quasispecies frame to explain IBV evolution. The quasispecies frame, while providing a distinct explanation of the dynamics of populations in which mutation is a frequent event, exhibits relevant limitations which are discussed herein. Instead, it seems that IBV populations evolving by the generation of genetic variability and selection on replicons follow the evolutionary mechanisms originally proposed by Darwin. Understanding the mechanisms underlying the evolution of IBV is of basic relevance and, without doubt, essential to appropriately control and prevent the disease.
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Vol. 56 • No. 3