Phage loss and the breakdown of a defensive symbiosis in aphids

Proc Biol Sci. 2013 Jan 22;280(1751):20122103. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2103.


Terrestrial arthropods are often infected with heritable bacterial symbionts, which may themselves be infected by bacteriophages. However, what role, if any, bacteriophages play in the regulation and maintenance of insect-bacteria symbioses is largely unknown. Infection of the aphid Acyrthosiphon pisum by the bacterial symbiont Hamiltonella defensa confers protection against parasitoid wasps, but only when H. defensa is itself infected by the phage A. pisum secondary endosymbiont (APSE). Here, we use a controlled genetic background and correlation-based assays to show that loss of APSE is associated with up to sevenfold increases in the intra-aphid abundance of H. defensa. APSE loss is also associated with severe deleterious effects on aphid fitness: aphids infected with H. defensa lacking APSE have a significantly delayed onset of reproduction, lower weight at adulthood and half as many total offspring as aphids infected with phage-harbouring H. defensa, indicating that phage loss can rapidly lead to the breakdown of the defensive symbiosis. Our results overall indicate that bacteriophages play critical roles in both aphid defence and the maintenance of heritable symbiosis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Aphids / microbiology*
  • Aphids / physiology
  • DNA Primers / genetics
  • Enterobacteriaceae / virology*
  • Genetic Fitness / genetics*
  • Podoviridae*
  • Population Dynamics
  • Reproduction / physiology
  • Symbiosis*
  • Vicia faba
  • Viral Proteins / genetics
  • Viral Proteins / metabolism


  • DNA Primers
  • Viral Proteins