Symbiont strain is the main determinant of variation in Wolbachia-mediated protection against viruses across Drosophila species

14 Aug 2017

Wolbachia is a common heritable bacterial symbiont in insects. Its evolutionary success lies in the diverse phenotypic effects it has on its hosts coupled to its propensity to move between host species over evolutionary timescales. In a survey of natural host-symbiont associations in a range of Drosophila species, we found that 10 of 16 Wolbachia strains protected their hosts against viral infection. By moving Wolbachia strains between host species, we found that the symbiont genome had a much greater influence on the level of antiviral protection than the host genome. The reason for this was that the level of protection depended on the density of the symbiont in host tissues, and Wolbachia rather than the host-controlled density. The finding that virus resistance and symbiont density are largely under the control of symbiont genes in this system has important implications both for the evolution of these traits and for public health programmes using Wolbachia to prevent mosquitoes from transmitting disease.