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PLoS Pathog. 2012;8(8):e1002844. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1002844. Epub 2012 Aug 2.

High virulence of Wolbachia after host switching: when autophagy hurts.

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Laboratoire Ecologie et Biologie des Interactions, UMR CNRS 7267, Equipe Ecologie Evolution Symbiose, Université de Poitiers, Poitiers, France.


Wolbachia are widespread endosymbionts found in a large variety of arthropods. While these bacteria are generally transmitted vertically and exhibit weak virulence in their native hosts, a growing number of studies suggests that horizontal transfers of Wolbachia to new host species also occur frequently in nature. In transfer situations, virulence variations can be predicted since hosts and symbionts are not adapted to each other. Here, we describe a situation where a Wolbachia strain (wVulC) becomes a pathogen when transfected from its native terrestrial isopod host species (Armadillidium vulgare) to another species (Porcellio d. dilatatus). Such transfer of wVulC kills all recipient animals within 75 days. Before death, animals suffer symptoms such as growth slowdown and nervous system disorders. Neither those symptoms nor mortalities were observed after injection of wVulC into its native host A. vulgare. Analyses of wVulC's densities in main organs including Central Nervous System (CNS) of both naturally infected A. vulgare and transfected P. d. dilatatus and A. vulgare individuals revealed a similar pattern of host colonization suggesting an overall similar resistance of both host species towards this bacterium. However, for only P. d. dilatatus, we observed drastic accumulations of autophagic vesicles and vacuoles in the nerve cells and adipocytes of the CNS from individuals infected by wVulC. The symptoms and mortalities could therefore be explained by this huge autophagic response against wVulC in P. d. dilatatus cells that is not triggered in A. vulgare. Our results show that Wolbachia (wVulC) can lead to a pathogenic interaction when transferred horizontally into species that are phylogenetically close to their native hosts. This change in virulence likely results from the autophagic response of the host, strongly altering its tolerance to the symbiont and turning it into a deadly pathogen.

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