Background: Wolbachia are intracellular bacteria widely distributed among arthropods and nematodes. In many insect species these bacteria induce a cytoplasmic incompatibility (CI) between sperm of infected males and eggs of uninfected females. From an evolutionary point of view, CI is puzzling: In order to induce this modification-rescue system, Wolbachia affect sperm of infected males even though Wolbachia are only transmitted maternally. Phylogenetic studies of Wolbachia and hosts show that the bacteria rarely cospeciate with their hosts, indicating that infections are lost in host species. However, the mechanisms leading to Wolbachia loss are not well understood.
Results: Using a population genetic model, we investigate the spread of host mutants that enhance or repress Wolbachia action by affecting either bacterial transmission or the level of CI. We show that host mutants that decrease CI-levels in males (e.g. by reducing Wolbachia-density during spermatogenesis) spread, even at cost to mutant males. Increase of these mutants can lead to loss of Wolbachia infections, either as a direct consequence of their increase or in a step-wise manner, and we derive analytically a threshold penetrance above which a mutation's spread leads to extinction of Wolbachia. Selection on host modifiers is sexually antagonistic in that, conversely, host mutants that enhance Wolbachia in females are favoured whereas suppressors are not.
Conclusions: Our results indicate that Wolbachia is likely to be lost from host populations on long evolutionary time scales due to reduction of CI levels in males. This can occur either by evolution of single host modifiers with large effects or through accumulation of several modifier alleles with small effects on Wolbachia action, even at cost to mutant males and even if infected hosts do not incur fecundity costs. This possibility is consistent with recent findings and may help to explain the apparent short evolutionary persistence times of Wolbachia in many host systems.