Wolbachia symbionts control sex in a parasitoid wasp using a horizontally acquired gene

Li C, Li CQ, Chen ZB, Liu BQ, Sun X, Wei KH, Li CY, Luan JB.,  Current Biology,  2024.

Host reproduction can be manipulated by bacterial symbionts in various ways. Parthenogenesis induction is the most effective type of reproduction manipulation by symbionts for their transmission. Insect sex is determined by regulation of doublesex (dsx) splicing through transformer2 (tra2) and transformer (tra) interaction. Although parthenogenesis induction by symbionts has been studied since the 1970s, its underlying molecular mechanism is unknown. Here we identify a Wolbachia parthenogenesis-induction feminization factor gene (piff) that targets sex-determining genes and causes female-producing parthenogenesis in the haplodiploid parasitoid Encarsia formosa. We found that Wolbachia elimination repressed expression of female-specific dsx and enhanced expression of male-specific dsx, which led to the production of wasp haploid male offspring. Furthermore, we found that E. formosa tra is truncated and non-functional, and Wolbachia has a functional tra homolog, termed piff, with an insect origin. Wolbachia PIFF can colocalize and interact with wasp TRA2. Moreover, Wolbachia piff has coordinated expression with tra2 and dsx of E. formosa. Our results demonstrate the bacterial symbiont Wolbachia has acquired an insect gene to manipulate the host sex determination cascade and induce parthenogenesis in wasps. This study reveals insect-to-bacteria horizontal gene transfer drives the evolution of animal sex determination systems, elucidating a striking mechanism of insect-microbe symbiosis.

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