Specialization and geographic isolation among Wolbachia symbionts from ants and lycaenid butterflies

Evolution. 2009 Mar;63(3):624-40. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00579.x. Epub 2008 Nov 19.


Wolbachia are the most prevalent and influential bacteria described among the insects to date. But despite their significance, we lack an understanding of their evolutionary histories. To describe the evolution of symbioses between Wolbachia and their hosts, we surveyed global collections of two diverse families of insects, the ants and lycaenid butterflies. In total, 54 Wolbachia isolates were typed using a Multi Locus Sequence Typing (MLST) approach, in which five unlinked loci were sequenced and analyzed to decipher evolutionary patterns. AMOVA and phylogenetic analyses demonstrated that related Wolbachia commonly infect related hosts, revealing a pattern of host association that was strongest among strains from the ants. A review of the literature indicated that horizontal transfer is most successful when Wolbachia move between related hosts, suggesting that patterns of host association are driven by specialization on a common physiological background. Aside from providing the broadest and strongest evidence to date for Wolbachia specialization, our findings also reveal that strains from New World ants differ markedly from those in ants from other locations. We, therefore, conclude that both geographic and phylogenetic barriers have promoted evolutionary divergence among these influential symbionts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants / microbiology*
  • Ants / physiology
  • Bacterial Typing Techniques
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Butterflies / microbiology*
  • Butterflies / physiology
  • Phylogeny
  • Symbiosis
  • Wolbachia / genetics*
  • Wolbachia / physiology