Combined actions of bacteriophage-encoded genes in Wolbachia-induced male lethality

H. Arai, H. Anbutsu, Y. Nishikawa, M. Kogawa, K. Ishii, M. Hosokawa, S. R. Lin, M. Ueda, M. Nakai, Y. Kunimi, T. Harumoto, D. Kageyama, H. Takeyama and M. N. Inoue,  iScience,  26:106842. 2023.

Some Wolbachia endosymbionts induce male killing, whereby male offspring of infected females are killed during development; however, the origin and diversity of the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. In this study, we identified a 76 kbp prophage region specific to male-killing Wolbachia hosted by the moth Homona magnanima. The prophage encoded a homolog of the male-killing gene oscar in Ostrinia moths and the wmk gene that induces various toxicities in Drosophila melanogaster. Upon overexpressing these genes in D. melanogaster, wmk-1 and wmk-3 killed all males and most females, whereas Hm-oscar, wmk-2, and wmk-4 had no impact on insect survival. Strikingly, co-expression of tandemly arrayed wmk-3 and wmk-4 killed 90% of males and restored 70% of females, suggesting their conjugated functions for male-specific lethality. While the male-killing gene in the native host remains unknown, our findings highlight the role of bacteriophages in male-killing evolution and differences in male-killing mechanisms among insects.

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