Rational engineering of a synthetic insect-bacterial mutualism

Y. Su, H.-C. Lin, L. S. Teh, F. Chevance, I. James, C. Mayfield, K. G. Golic, J. A. Gagnon, O. Rog and C. Dale,  Current Biology,  2022.

Many insects maintain mutualistic associations with bacterial endosymbionts, but little is known about how they originate in nature. In this study, we describe the establishment and manipulation of a synthetic insect-bacterial symbiosis in a weevil host. Following egg injection, the nascent symbiont colonized many tissues, including prototypical somatic and germinal bacteriomes, yielding maternal transmission over many generations. We then engineered the nascent symbiont to overproduce the aromatic amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine, which facilitate weevil cuticle strengthening and accelerated larval development, replicating the function of mutualistic symbionts that are widely distributed among weevils and other beetles in nature. Our work provides empirical support for the notion that mutualistic symbioses can be initiated in insects by the acquisition of environmental bacteria. It also shows that certain bacterial genera, including the Sodalis spp. used in our study, are predisposed to develop these associations due to their ability to maintain benign infections and undergo vertical transmission in diverse insect hosts, facilitating the partner-fidelity feedback that is critical for the evolution of obligate mutualism. These experimental advances provide a new platform for laboratory studies focusing on the molecular mechanisms and evolutionary processes underlying insect-bacterial symbiosis.

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