Genomic Diversity in the Endosymbiotic Bacteria of Human Head Lice

Mol Biol Evol. 2024 Apr 2;41(4):msae064. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msae064.


Insects have repeatedly forged symbioses with heritable microbes, gaining novel traits. For the microbe, the transition to symbioses can lead to the degeneration of the symbiont's genome through transmission bottlenecks, isolation, and the loss of DNA repair enzymes. However, some insect-microbial symbioses have persisted for millions of years, suggesting that natural selection slows genetic drift and maintains functional consistency between symbiont populations. By sampling in multiple countries, we examine genomic diversity within a symbiont species, a heritable symbiotic bacterium found only in human head lice. We find that human head louse symbionts contain genetic diversity that appears to have arisen contemporaneously with the appearance of anatomically modern humans within Africa and/or during the colonization of Eurasia by humans. We predict that the observed genetic diversity underlies functional differences in extant symbiont lineages, through the inactivation of genes involved in symbiont membrane construction. Furthermore, we find evidence of additional gene losses prior to the appearance of modern humans, also impacting the symbiont membrane. From this, we conclude that symbiont genome degeneration is proceeding, via gene inactivation and subsequent loss, in human head louse symbionts, while genomic diversity is maintained. Collectively, our results provide a look into the genomic diversity within a single symbiont species and highlight the shared evolutionary history of humans, lice, and bacteria.

Keywords: cell membrane; codiversification; evolution; genome degeneration; maternal inheritance; parasite.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Genome, Bacterial
  • Genomics
  • Hominidae* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Insecta / genetics
  • Pediculus* / genetics
  • Phylogeny
  • Symbiosis / genetics