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Comparative genomics provides a timeframe for Wolbachia evolution and exposes a recent biotin synthesis operon transfer

This article has been updated


The genus Wolbachia (Alphaproteobacteria) comprises the most abundant inherited intracellular bacteria1. Despite their relevance as manipulators of human pathogen transmission2 and arthropod reproduction3, many aspects of their evolutionary history are not well understood4. In arthropods, Wolbachia infections are typically transient on evolutionary timescales5,6 and co-divergence between hosts and Wolbachia is supposedly rare. Consequently, much of our knowledge of Wolbachia genome evolution derives from very recently diverged strains, and a timescale for Wolbachia is lacking. Here, we investigated the genomes of four Wolbachia strains that have persisted within and co-diverged with their host lineage for 2 million years. Although the genomes showed very little evolutionary change on a nucleotide level, we found evidence for a recent lateral transfer of a complete biotin synthesis operon that has the potential to transform Wolbachia–host relationships7. Furthermore, this evolutionary snapshot enabled us to calibrate the divergence times of the supergroup A and B Wolbachia lineages using genome-wide data sets and relaxed molecular clock models. We estimated the origin of Wolbachia supergroups A and B to be 200 million years ago (Ma), which is considerably older than previously appreciated. This age coincides with the diversification of many insect lineages8 that represent most of Wolbachia’s host spectrum.

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Figure 1: Evolution of Nomada-associated Wolbachia strains.
Figure 2: Structure and phylogeny of the Wolbachia biotin operon.
Figure 3: Dated phylogeny of Wolbachia supergroups A and B.

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  • 14 July 2017

    In the PDF version of this article previously published, the year of publication provided in the footer of each page and in the 'How to cite' section was erroneously given as 2017, it should have been 2016. This error has now been corrected. The HTML version of the article was not affected.


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We thank R. Sontowski and A. Weigert for laboratory assistance. M.G. is funded by the European Molecular Biology Organization (ALTF 48-2015) and co-funded by Marie-Curie Actions of the European Commission (LTFCOFUND2013, GA-2013-609409). C.B. is a ‘Ramon y Cajal’ fellow supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Education (MEC) (RYC-2014-15615). This work was supported by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig.

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M.G. and C.B. conceived and designed the study, and wrote the paper. M.G. performed the in silico and in vitro procedures.

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Correspondence to Michael Gerth.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Gerth, M., Bleidorn, C. Comparative genomics provides a timeframe for Wolbachia evolution and exposes a recent biotin synthesis operon transfer. Nat Microbiol 2, 16241 (2017).

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