Wolbachia pipientis is a widespread intracellular bacterial symbiont of arthropods and is common in insects. One of their more exotic and unexpected hosts is the filarial nematodes, notable for the parasites responsible for onchocerciasis (river blindness), lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis) and dirofilariasis (heartworm). Wolbachia are only present in a subgroup of the filarial nematodes and do not extend to other groups of nematodes either parasitic or free-living. In the medically and veterinary important species that host Wolbachia, the symbiont has become an essential partner to key biological processes in the life of the nematode to the point where antibiotic elimination of the bacteria leads to a potent and effective anti-filarial drug treatment. We review the cellular and molecular basis of Wolbachia filarial interactions and highlight the key processes provided by the endosymbiont upon which the nematodes have become entirely dependent. This dependency is primarily restricted to periods of the lifecycle with heavy metabolic demands including growth and development of larval stages and embryogenesis in the adult female. Also, the longevity of filarial parasites is compromised following depletion of the symbiont, which for the first time has delivered a safe and effective treatment to kill adult parasites with antibiotics.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.