Genome reduction and co-evolution between the primary and secondary bacterial symbionts of psyllids

Mol Biol Evol. 2012 Dec;29(12):3781-92. doi: 10.1093/molbev/mss180. Epub 2012 Jul 19.


Genome reduction in obligately intracellular bacteria is one of the most well-established patterns in the field of molecular evolution. In the extreme, many sap-feeding insects harbor nutritional symbionts with genomes that are so reduced that it is not clear how they perform basic cellular functions. For example, the primary symbiont of psyllids (Carsonella) maintains one of the smallest and most AT-rich bacterial genomes ever identified and has surprisingly lost many genes that are thought to be essential for its role in provisioning its host with amino acids. However, our understanding of this extreme case of genome reduction is limited, as genomic data for Carsonella are available from only a single host species, and little is known about the functional role of "secondary" bacterial symbionts in psyllids. To address these limitations, we analyzed complete Carsonella genomes from pairs of congeneric hosts in three divergent genera within the Psyllidae (Ctenarytaina, Heteropsylla, and Pachypsylla) as well as complete secondary symbiont genomes from two of these host species (Ctenarytaina eucalypti and Heteropsylla cubana). Although the Carsonella genomes are generally conserved in size, structure, and GC content and exhibit genome-wide signatures of purifying selection, we found that gene loss has remained active since the divergence of the host species and had a particularly large impact on the amino acid biosynthesis pathways that define the symbiotic role of Carsonella. In some cases, the presence of additional bacterial symbionts may compensate for gene loss in Carsonella, as functional gene content indicates a high degree of metabolic complementarity between co-occurring symbionts. The genomes of the secondary symbionts also show signatures of long-term evolution as vertically transmitted, intracellular bacteria, including more extensive genome reduction than typically observed in facultative symbionts. Therefore, a history of co-evolution with secondary bacterial symbionts can partially explain the ongoing genome reduction in Carsonella. However, the absence of these secondary symbionts in other host lineages indicates that the relationships are dynamic and that other mechanisms, such as changes in host diet or functional coordination with the host genome, must also be at play.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Amino Acids / biosynthesis
  • Animals
  • Base Sequence
  • Biosynthetic Pathways / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gammaproteobacteria / genetics*
  • Genome Size / genetics*
  • Genome, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Hemiptera / microbiology*
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Genetic
  • Molecular Sequence Annotation
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phylogeny
  • Sequence Alignment
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Species Specificity
  • Symbiosis*


  • Amino Acids