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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Intragenomic conflict in populations infected by Parthenogenesis Inducing Wolbachia ends with irreversible loss of sexual reproduction

Richard Stouthamer1*, James E Russell1, Fabrice Vavre2 and Leonard Nunney3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Entomology, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, USA

2 Université de Lyon; Université Lyon 1; CNRS; UMR 5558, Laboratoire de Biométrie et Biologie Evolutive, 43 Boulevard du 11 Novembre 1918, Villeurbanne F-69622, France

3 Department of Biology, University of California, Riverside, CA 92521, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:229  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-229

Published: 28 July 2010



The maternally inherited, bacterial symbiont, parthenogenesis inducing (PI) Wolbachia, causes females in some haplodiploid insects to produce daughters from both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. The symbionts, with their maternal inheritance, benefit from inducing the production of exclusively daughters, however the optimal sex ratio for the nuclear genome is more male-biased. Here we examine through models how an infection with PI-Wolbachia in a previously uninfected population leads to a genomic conflict between PI-Wolbachia and the nuclear genome. In most natural populations infected with PI-Wolbachia the infection has gone to fixation and sexual reproduction is impossible, specifically because the females have lost their ability to fertilize eggs, even when mated with functional males.


The PI Wolbachia infection by itself does not interfere with the fertilization process in infected eggs, fertilized infected eggs develop into biparental infected females. Because of the increasingly female-biased sex ratio in the population during a spreading PI-Wolbachia infection, sex allocation alleles in the host that cause the production of more sons are rapidly selected. In haplodiploid species a reduced fertilization rate leads to the production of more sons. Selection for the reduced fertilization rate leads to a spread of these alleles through both the infected and uninfected population, eventually resulting in the population becoming fixed for both the PI-Wolbachia infection and the reduced fertilization rate. Fertilization rate alleles that completely interfere with fertilization ("virginity alleles") will be selected over alleles that still allow for some fertilization. This drives the final resolution of the conflict: the irreversible loss of sexual reproduction and the complete dependence of the host on its symbiont.


This study shows that dependence among organisms can evolve rapidly due to the resolution of the conflicts between cytoplasmic and nuclear genes, and without requiring a mutualism between the partners.