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Open Access Research article

Male-killing endosymbionts: influence of environmental conditions on persistence of host metapopulation

Dries Bonte12*, Thomas Hovestadt1 and Hans-Joachim Poethke1

Author Affiliations

1 Würzburg University, Field Station Fabrikschleichach, Glashuettenstrasse 5, D-96181, Rauhenebrach, Germany

2 Terrestrial Ecology Unit, Department of Biology, Ghent University, K.L. Ledeganckstraat 35, BE-9000, Ghent, Belgium

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:243  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-243

Published: 2 September 2008



Male killing endosymbionts manipulate their arthropod host reproduction by only allowing female embryos to develop into infected females and killing all male offspring. Because of the reproductive manipulation, we expect them to have an effect on the evolution of host dispersal rates. In addition, male killing endosymbionts are expected to approach fixation when fitness of infected individuals is larger than that of uninfected ones and when transmission from mother to offspring is nearly perfect. They then vanish as the host population crashes. High observed infection rates and among-population variation in natural systems can consequently not be explained if defense mechanisms are absent and when transmission efficiency is perfect.


By simulating the host-endosymbiont dynamics in an individual-based metapopulation model we show that male killing endosymbionts increase host dispersal rates. No fitness compensations were built into the model for male killing endosymbionts, but they spread as a group beneficial trait. Host and parasite populations face extinction under panmictic conditions, i.e. conditions that favor the evolution of high dispersal in hosts. On the other hand, deterministic 'curing' (only parasite goes extinct) can occur under conditions of low dispersal, e.g. under low environmental stochasticity and high dispersal mortality. However, high and stable infection rates can be maintained in metapopulations over a considerable spectrum of conditions favoring intermediate levels of dispersal in the host.


Male killing endosymbionts without explicit fitness compensation spread as a group selected trait into a metapopulation. Emergent feedbacks through increased evolutionary stable dispersal rates provide an alternative explanation for both, the high male-killing endosymbiont infection rates and the high among-population variation in local infection rates reported for some natural systems.