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Proc Biol Sci. 2008 Feb 7;275(1632):293-9.

Population dynamics of defensive symbionts in aphids.

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  • 1Department of Entomology, University of Arizona,Tucson, AZ 85721, USA.


Vertically transmitted micro-organisms can increase in frequency in host populations by providing net benefits to hosts. While laboratory studies have identified diverse beneficial effects conferred by inherited symbionts of insects, they have not explicitly examined the population dynamics of mutualist symbiont infection within populations. In the pea aphid, Acyrthosiphon pisum, the inherited facultative symbiont, Hamiltonella defensa, provides protection against parasitism by the wasp, Aphidius ervi. Despite a high fidelity of vertical transmission and direct benefits of infection accruing to parasitized aphids, Hamiltonella remains only at intermediate frequencies in natural populations. Here, we conducted population cage experiments to monitor the dynamics of Hamiltonella and of another common A. pisum symbiont, Serratia symbiotica, in the presence and absence of parasitism. We also conducted fitness assays of Hamiltonella-infected aphids to search for costs to infection in the absence of parasitism. In the population cages, we found that the frequency of A. pisum infected with Hamiltonella increased dramatically after repeated exposure to parasitism by A. ervi, indicating that selection pressures from natural enemies can lead to the increase of particular inherited symbionts in insect populations. In our laboratory fitness assays, we did not detect a cost to infection with Hamiltonella, but in the population cages not exposed to parasitism, we found a significant decline in the frequency of both Hamiltonella and Serratia. The declining frequencies of Hamiltonella-infected aphids in population cages in the absence of parasitism indicate a probable cost to infection and may explain why Hamiltonella remains at intermediate frequencies in natural populations.

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