Researchers reveal how a virus hijacks insect sperm: May help control disease vectors and pests

Pennsylvania State University,,  2024.

A widespread bacteria called Wolbachia and a virus that it carries can cause sterility in male insects by hijacking their sperm, preventing them from fertilizing eggs of females that do not have the same combination of bacteria and virus. A new study led by microbiome researchers at Penn State has uncovered how this microbial combination manipulates sperm, which could lead to refined techniques to control populations of agricultural pests and insects that carry diseases like Zika and dengue to humans. The study is published in the journal Science.

“Wolbachia is the most widespread bacteria in animals and lives symbiotically within the reproductive tissues of about 50% of insect species, including some mosquitos and flies,” said Seth Bordenstein, professor of biology and entomology, director of the One Health Microbiome Center at Penn State, and one of the leaders of the research team. “Wolbachia has genes from a virus called prophage WO integrated into its genome. These genes—cifA and cifB—allow the bacteria to remarkably manipulate sperm and quickly spread through an insect population for their own good.” When a male and female insect that both have Wolbachia mate, they successfully reproduce and pass on the bacteria. But when a male with Wolbachia mates with a female with no Wolbachia, the sperm are rendered lethal to the fertilized eggs, succumbing them to death. This system cunningly increases the proportion of offspring with Wolbachia and the virus in the next generation, because females with the bacteria successfully reproduce more frequently than females without.

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