Variation in influenza A viruses was examined by comparison of nucleotide sequences of the NS gene (890 bases) of 15 human viruses isolated over 53 years (1933 to 1985). Changes in the genes accumulate with time, and an evolutionary tree based on the maximum parsimony method can be constructed. The evolutionary rate is approximately 2 X 10(-3) substitution per site per year in the NS genes, which is about 10(6) times the evolutionary rate of germline genes in mammals. This uniform and rapid rate of evolution in the NS gene is a good molecular clock and is compatible with the hypothesis that positive selection is operating on the hemagglutinin (or perhaps some other viral genes) to preserve random mutations in the NS gene.

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