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Male-killing Spiroplasma naturally infecting Drosophila melanogaster


Horácio Montenegro, Departamento de Genética e Evolução, Instituto de Biologia – UNICAMP, C.P. 6109, Campinas, SP, CEP 13083–970, Brazil. Tel.: +55 19 37881150; fax: +55 19 37886235; e-mail:,


Elucidation of the mechanism of action of selfish genetic elements is difficult outside species with well-defined genetics. Male-killing, the phenomenon whereby inherited bacteria kill male hosts during embryogenesis, is thus uncharacterized in mechanistic terms despite being common and important in insects. We characterized the prevalence, identity and source of the male-killing infection recently discovered in Drosophila melanogaster in Brazil. Male-killing was found to be present in 2.3% of flies from Recife, Brazil, and was uniquely associated with the presence of Spiroplasma infection. The identity of sequences across part of the 16S and across the 16S−23S ITS region indicated that the male-killing infection of D. melanogaster was very closely related to S. poulsonii, the source of the male-killing infection in willistoni group flies also found in South America. The sequences of two further protein-coding genes indicated the D. melanogaster infection to be most closely related to that found in D. nebulosa, from the willistoni group. Our data suggest that the establishment of D. melanogaster in South America was associated with the movement of male-killing bacteria between species.