The contribution of RNA recombination to viral fitness and pathogenesis is poorly defined. Here, we isolate a recombination-deficient, poliovirus variant and find that, while recombination is detrimental to virus replication in tissue culture, recombination is important for pathogenesis in infected animals. Notably, recombination-defective virus exhibits severe attenuation following intravenous inoculation that is associated with a significant reduction in population size during intra-host spread. Because the impact of high mutational loads manifests most strongly at small population sizes, our data suggest that the repair of mutagenized genomes is an essential function of recombination and that this function may drive the long-term maintenance of recombination in viral species despite its associated fitness costs.
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