Reproduction within a host and transmission to the next host are crucial for the virulence and fitness of pathogens. Nevertheless, basic knowledge about such parameters is often missing from the literature, even for well-studied bacteria, such as Bacillus thuringiensis, an endospore-forming insect pathogen, which infects its hosts via the oral route. To characterize bacterial replication success, we made use of an experimental oral infection system for the red flour beetle Tribolium castaneum and developed a flow cytometric assay for the quantification of both spore ingestion by the individual beetle larvae and the resulting spore load after bacterial replication and resporulation within cadavers. On average, spore numbers increased 460-fold, showing that Bacillus thuringiensis grows and replicates successfully in insect cadavers. By inoculating cadaver-derived spores and spores from bacterial stock cultures into nutrient medium, we next investigated outgrowth characteristics of vegetative cells and found that cadaver-derived bacteria showed reduced growth compared to bacteria from the stock cultures. Interestingly, this reduced growth was a consequence of inhibited spore germination, probably originating from the host and resulting in reduced host mortality in subsequent infections by cadaver-derived spores. Nevertheless, we further showed that Bacillus thuringiensis transmission was possible via larval cannibalism when no other food was offered. These results contribute to our understanding of the ecology of Bacillus thuringiensis as an insect pathogen.
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