Adaptation via Symbiosis: Recent Spread of a Drosophila Defensive Symbiont

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Science  09 Jul 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5988, pp. 212-215
DOI: 10.1126/science.1188235

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Offsetting the Cost of Parasitism

Fruit flies, like most animals, are vulnerable to infection by a range of organisms, which, in co-infections, can interact with sometimes surprising effects. Jaenike et al. (p. 212) discovered that a species of Spiroplasma bacterium that is sometimes found in flies, and that is transmitted from mother to offspring, protects its host from the effects of a nematode worm parasite, Howardula aoronymphium. The worm sterilizes the female flies and shortens their lives, but when flies were experimentally infected with Spiroplasma, their fertility was rescued. Similarly, in wild populations of fruit flies infected with worms, those also infected with Spiroplasma had more eggs in their ovaries. The bacterium inhibits the growth of the adult female worms, but such is the advantage of this bacterial infection in offsetting the burden of nematodes on reproductive fitness, Spiroplasma appears to be spreading rapidly through populations of fruit flies in North America.


Recent studies have shown that some plants and animals harbor microbial symbionts that protect them against natural enemies. Here we demonstrate that a maternally transmitted bacterium, Spiroplasma, protects Drosophila neotestacea against the sterilizing effects of a parasitic nematode, both in the laboratory and the field. This nematode parasitizes D. neotestacea at high frequencies in natural populations, and, until recently, almost all infections resulted in complete sterility. Several lines of evidence suggest that Spiroplasma is spreading in North American populations of D. neotestacea and that a major adaptive change to a symbiont-based mode of defense is under way. These findings demonstrate the profound and potentially rapid effects of defensive symbionts, which are increasingly recognized as major players in the ecology of species interactions.

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