Environmental and genetic contributions to imperfect wMel-like wolbachia transmission and frequency variation

Michael T.J. Hague, Heidi Mavengere, Daniel R. Matute, Brandon S. Cooper

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Maternally transmitted Wolbachia bacteria infect about half of all insect species. They usually show imperfect maternal transmission and often produce cytoplasmic incompatibility (CI). Irrespective of CI, Wolbachia frequencies tend to increase when rare only if they benefit host fitness. Several Wolbachia, including wMel that infects Drosophila melanogaster, cause weak or no CI and persist at intermediate frequencies. On the island of São Tomé off West Africa, the frequencies of wMel-like Wolbachia infecting Drosophila yakuba (wYak) and Drosophila santomea (wSan) fluctuate, and the contributions of imperfect maternal transmission, fitness effects, and CI to these fluctuations are unknown. We demonstrate spatial variation in wYak frequency and transmission on São Tomé. Concurrent field estimates of imperfect maternal transmission do not predict spatial variation in wYak frequencies, which are highest at high altitudes where maternal transmission is the most imperfect. Genomic and genetic analyses provide little support for D. yakuba effects on wYak transmission. Instead, rearing at cool temperatures reduces wYak titer and increases imperfect transmission to levels observed on São Tomé. Using mathematical models of Wolbachia frequency dynamics and equilibria, we infer that temporally variable imperfect transmission or spatially variable effects on host fitness and reproduction are required to explain wYak frequencies. In contrast, spatially stable wSan frequencies are plausibly explained by imperfect transmission, modest fitness effects, and weak CI. Our results provide insight into causes of wMel-like frequency variation in divergent hosts. Understanding this variation is crucial to explain Wolbachia spread and to improve wMel biocontrol of human disease in transinfected mosquito systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1117-1132
Number of pages16
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2020


  • Cytoplasmic incompatibility
  • Drosophila santomea
  • Drosophila yakuba
  • Endosymbiosis
  • Host–microbe interactions


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