Maternally inherited male-killing microorganisms may confound interpretation of mitochondrial DNA variability



Variation in mitochondrial DNA is often used to trace the evolutionary history of populations and species. We here discuss the effect of infection with cytoplasmically inherited male-lethal symbionts on mitochondrial genome evolution. Male-lethal symbionts spread when killing male hosts increases the lifetime reproductive success of sibling female hosts. This increase in the survivorship of daughters from individuals bearing a male-killer will produce a concomitant increase in the frequency of mitotypes associated with the male-killer. If horizontal transmission of the microoorganism is rare and population sizes not very small, then linkage disequilibrium between microorganism and particular mitotypes will result in a reproduction of within-population mitochondrial variability both because of a selective sweep during the spread of such a micro-organism, and also at equilibrium. Male-killing symbionts may thus confound the use of mtDNA variability in estimation of population parameters. We discuss the differences between the effects of male-killers and the cytoplasmic incompatibility-inducing symbiont Wolbachia, and the possibility that estimation of gene flow between populations may also be confounded by symbiont presence.