Ubiquitous Selfish Toxin-Antidote Elements in Caenorhabditis Species

Curr Biol. 2021 Mar 8;31(5):990-1001.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.12.013. Epub 2021 Jan 7.


Toxin-antidote elements (TAs) are selfish genetic dyads that spread in populations by selectively killing non-carriers. TAs are common in prokaryotes, but very few examples are known in animals. Here, we report the discovery of maternal-effect TAs in both C. tropicalis and C. briggsae, two distant relatives of C. elegans. In C. tropicalis, multiple TAs combine to cause a striking degree of intraspecific incompatibility: five elements reduce the fitness of >70% of the F2 hybrid progeny of two Caribbean isolates. We identified the genes underlying one of the novel TAs, slow-1/grow-1, and found that its toxin, slow-1, is homologous to nuclear hormone receptors. Remarkably, although previously known TAs act during embryonic development, maternal loading of slow-1 in oocytes specifically slows down larval development, delaying the onset of reproduction by several days. Finally, we found that balancing selection acting on linked, conflicting TAs hampers their ability to spread in populations, leading to more stable genetic incompatibilities. Our findings indicate that TAs are widespread in Caenorhabditis species and target a wide range of developmental processes and that antagonism between them may cause lasting incompatibilities in natural populations. We expect that similar phenomena exist in other animal species.

Keywords: Caenorhabditis; gene drive; genetic incompatibility; natural genetic variation; selfish gene; speciation; toxin-antidote; toxin-antitoxin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antidotes / analysis*
  • Caenorhabditis / chemistry*
  • Caenorhabditis / classification
  • Caenorhabditis / genetics*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Repetitive Sequences, Nucleic Acid*
  • Toxins, Biological / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Toxins, Biological / genetics*


  • Antidotes
  • Toxins, Biological