Knowledge of the mechanisms of pathogen persistence in relation to fluctuations in host density is crucial to our understanding of disease dynamics. In the case of insect baculoviruses, which are typically transmitted horizontally via a lifestage that can persist outside the host, a key issue that remains to be elucidated is whether the virus can also be transmitted vertically as a sublethal infection. We show that RNA transcripts for the Plodia interpunctella GV granulin gene are present in a high proportion of P. interpunctella insects that survive virus challenge. Granulin is a late-expressed gene that is only transcribed after viral genome replication, its presence thus strongly indicates that viral genome replication has occurred. Almost all insects surviving the virus challenge tested positive for viral RNA in the larval and pupal stage. However, this proportion declined in the emerging adults. Granulin mRNA was also detected in both the ovaries and testes, which may represent a putative mechanism by which reduced fecundity in sublethally affected hosts might be manifested. RNA transcripts were also detected in 60–80% of second-generation larvae that were derived from mating surviving adults, but there was no difference between the sexes, with both males and females capable of transmitting a sublethal infection to their offspring. The data indicate that low-level persistent infection, with at least limited gene expression, can occur in P. interpunctella following survival of a granulovirus challenge. We believe that this is the first demonstration of a persistent, sublethal infection by a baculovirus to be initiated by a sublethal virus dose. We hypothesize that the ‘latent’ baculovirus infections frequently referred to in the literature may also be low level persistent, sublethal infections resulting from survival from initial baculovirus exposure.
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