Catching evolution's henchmen in the act

Everyone has mitochondria--the famous "powerhouse" of eukaryotic cells can hardly be considered a disease. But mitochondria may be relicts of an ancient invasion, an epidemic that took place 500 million years ago. Wolbachia, a bacterial group related to the ancestor of mitochondria, infects a wide range of insects and manipulates host reproduction to promote its own survival. A posse, with $5 million from the US National Science Foundation, is on its trail.

"Wolbachia kills males, causes immaculate conception, and perhaps even accelerates speciation," says Don Windsor, Staff Scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Windsors lab will collect insects in Panama, a biodiversity hot spot, and will take advantage of molecular tools to find out which Wolbachia strains tropical insects harbour.

Wolbachia strains are indistinguishable without DNA sequencing. "A strain that causes male-killing in a beetle can cause male feminization in a butterfly", says Gwen Keller, who's busy writing up her dissertation on the subject. "The first generation of molecular Wolbachia research allowed us to tell which invertebrates were infected and to identify strains based on one or two genes"

"Studies of basic ecology showed us the range of Wolbachia's manipulative effects. In the next few years, with a greater number of Wolbachia genes at our disposal, we'll be able to more accurately describe bacterial strains, especially now that we know strains can recombine when they share the same host. Wolbachia strains may soon be described by the mosaic of genes they carry rather than by a single gene sequence. These acquired gene mosaics may enable strains to survive better in new hosts."

This work is sponsored by a $5 million Frontiers in Biological Research (FIBR) grant from NSF to principal investigator Jack Werren at the University of Rochester. Werren has assembled a team of experts from seven laboratories to work out how Wolbach

Contact: Dr. Don Windsor
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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