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Open Access Research article

Small steps or giant leaps for male-killers? Phylogenetic constraints to male-killer host shifts

Matthew C Tinsley1* and Michael EN Majerus2

Author Affiliations

1 School of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9 4LA, UK

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

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:238  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-238

Published: 29 November 2007

Abstract

Background

Arthropods are infected by a wide diversity of maternally transmitted microbes. Some of these manipulate host reproduction to facilitate population invasion and persistence. Such parasites transmit vertically on an ecological timescale, but rare horizontal transmission events have permitted colonisation of new species. Here we report the first systematic investigation into the influence of the phylogenetic distance between arthropod species on the potential for reproductive parasite interspecific transfer.

Results

We employed a well characterised reproductive parasite, a coccinellid beetle male-killer, and artificially injected the bacterium into a series of novel species. Genetic distances between native and novel hosts were ascertained by sequencing sections of the 16S and 12S mitochondrial rDNA genes. The bacterium colonised host tissues and transmitted vertically in all cases tested. However, whilst transmission efficiency was perfect within the native genus, this was reduced following some transfers of greater phylogenetic distance. The bacterium's ability to distort offspring sex ratios in novel hosts was negatively correlated with the genetic distance of transfers. Male-killing occurred with full penetrance following within-genus transfers; but whilst sex ratio distortion generally occurred, it was incomplete in more distantly related species.

Conclusion

This study indicates that the natural interspecific transmission of reproductive parasites might be constrained by their ability to tolerate the physiology or genetics of novel hosts. Our data suggest that horizontal transfers are more likely between closely related species. Successful bacterial transfer across large phylogenetic distances may require rapid adaptive evolution in the new species. This finding has applied relevance regarding selection of suitable bacteria to manipulate insect pest and vector populations by symbiont gene-drive systems.