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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Aug 22;103(34):12803-6. Epub 2006 Aug 14.

Sexual acquisition of beneficial symbionts in aphids.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA.


A noted cost of mating is the risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections that are detrimental to the recipient. But many microbial associates of eukaryotes are mutualistic, raising the possibility that sexual contact provides the opportunity to acquire symbionts that are beneficial. In aphids, facultative bacterial symbionts, which benefit hosts by conferring resistance to natural enemies or to heat, are transmitted maternally with high fidelity and are maintained stably throughout hundreds of parthenogenetic generations in the laboratory. Data from field populations indicate that horizontal transfer of these facultative symbionts is frequent, and transfections are readily achieved by microinjection or ingestion in artificial diet. However, no natural mechanism for the horizontal transfer of these symbionts has been identified. Here we demonstrate that during sexual reproduction, male-borne symbionts can be acquired by females and subsequently transferred to sexually and parthenogenetically produced progeny, establishing stable, maternally transmitted associations. In our experiments, sexually transmitted symbionts resulted in (i) infection of previously uninfected matrilines, (ii) a double infection in a matriline already bearing a different symbiont, and (iii) replacement of the maternal symbiont. We also observed some cases in which maternal symbionts failed to become established in sexually produced progeny. Microscopy indicated that symbionts were abundant in the male reproductive system, which demonstrates a natural route of nonmaternal transfer of insect symbionts. Because such transfer can generate coinfections, thereby creating opportunities for symbiont competition and recombination, paternal inheritance has major consequences for expectations regarding symbiont evolution.

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