Uncovering symbiont-driven genetic diversity across North American pea aphids


Correspondence: Jacob Russell, Fax: 215 895 1273; E-mail: jar337@drexel.edu


Heritable genetic variation is required for evolution, and while typically encoded within nuclear and organellar genomes, several groups of invertebrates harbour heritable microbes serving as additional sources of genetic variation. Hailing from the symbiont-rich insect order Hemiptera, pea aphids (Acyrthosiphon pisum) possess several heritable symbionts with roles in host plant utilization, thermotolerance and protection against natural enemies. As pea aphids vary in the numbers and types of harboured symbionts, these bacteria provide heritable and functionally important variation within field populations. In this study, we quantified the cytoplasmically inherited genetic variation contributed by symbionts within North American pea aphids. Through the use of Denaturing Gradient Gel Electrophoresis (DGGE) and 454 amplicon pyrosequencing of 16S rRNA genes, we explored the diversity of bacteria harboured by pea aphids from five populations, spanning three locations and three host plants. We also characterized strain variation by analysing 16S rRNA, housekeeping and symbiont-associated bacteriophage genes. Our results identified eight species of facultative symbionts, which often varied in frequency between locations and host plants. We detected 28 cytoplasmic genotypes across 318 surveyed aphids, considering only the various combinations of secondary symbiont species infecting single hosts. Yet the detection of multiple Regiella insecticola, Hamiltonella defensa and Rickettsia strains, and diverse bacteriophage genotypes from H. defensa, suggest even greater diversity. Combined, these findings reveal that heritable bacteria contribute substantially to genetic variation in A. pisum. Given the costs and benefits of these symbionts, it is likely that fluctuating selective forces play a role in the maintenance of this diversity.