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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Discovery and identification of a male-killing agent in the Japanese ladybird Propylea japonica (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae)

Tamsin MO Majerus1* and Michael EN Majerus2

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Genetics, University of Nottingham, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, NG7 2UH, UK

2 Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3EH, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:37  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-37

Published: 11 February 2010



Endosymbionts that manipulate the reproduction of their hosts have been reported widely in invertebrates. One such group of endosymbionts is the male-killers. To date all male-killers reported are bacterial in nature, but comprise a diverse group. Ladybirds have been described as a model system for the study of male-killing, which has been reported in multiple species from widespread geographic locations. Whilst criteria of low egg hatch-rate and female-biased progenic sex ratio have been used to identify female hosts of male-killers, variation in vertical transmission efficiency and host genetic factors may result in variation in these phenotypic indicators of male-killer presence. Molecular identification of bacteria and screening for bacterial presence provide us with a more accurate method than breeding data alone to link the presence of the bacteria to the male-killing phenotype. In addition, by identifying the bacteria responsible we may find evidence for horizontal transfer between endosymbiont hosts and can gain insight into the evolutionary origins of male-killing. Phylogenetic placement of male-killing bacteria will allow us to address the question of whether male-killing is a potential strategy for only some, or all, maternally inherited bacteria. Together, phenotypic and molecular characterisation of male-killers will allow a deeper insight into the interactions between host and endosymbiont, which ultimately may lead to an understanding of how male-killers identify and kill male-hosts.


A male-killer was detected in the Japanese coccinellid, Propylea japonica (Thunberg) a species not previously known to harbour male-killers. Families produced by female P. japonica showed significantly female-biased sex ratios. One female produced only daughters. This male-killer trait was maternally inherited and antibiotic treatment produced a full, heritable cure. Molecular analysis identified Rickettsia to be associated with the trait in this species of ladybird.


We conclude that P. japonica is host to a bacterial male-killer that is vertically inherited with variable transmission efficiency. Rickettsia presence correlates with the male-killing trait, but there is some variation in the phenotypic expression of the trait due to interaction with host factors. Phylogenetic analysis using the 16S rRNA and 17 kDa antigen genes suggests there may have been horizontal transfer of Rickettsial male-killers between different ladybird hosts.