This is the seventh of eight posts on evolutionary research to celebrate Darwin’s bicentennial. It combines many of my favourite topics – symbiosis, horizontal gene transfer, parasitic wasps and viruses.
Parasitic wasps make a living by snatching the bodies of other insects and using them as living incubators for their grubs. Some species target caterpillars, and subdue them with a biological weapon. They inject the victim with “virus-like particles” called polydnaviruses (PDVs), which weaken its immune system and leave the wasp grub to develop unopposed. Without the infection, the wasp egg would be surrounded by blood cells and killed.
The wasps’ partners in body-snatching are very different to all other viruses. Once they have infected other cells, they never use the opportunity to make more copies of themselves. They actually can’t. To complete their life cycles, viruses need to package their genetic material within a coat made of proteins. In most cases, the instructions for building these coats are encoded within the virus’s genome, but polydnaviruses lack these key instructions entirely. Without them, the virus is stuck within whatever cell it infects.
It’s such a weird set-up that some scientists have questioned whether the polydnaviruses actually count as viruses at all or whether they are “genetic secretions” from the wasps themselves. Where on earth are those missing coat genes?
Annie Bezier form Francois Rabelais University has found the answer and it’s an astonishing one. The viruses’ coat genes haven’t disappeared – they’ve just been relocated to the genomes of their wasp hosts.
In this way, the wasps and the viruses have formed an unbreakable alliance, where neither can survive without the other’s help. Without the virus, the next generation of wasps would be overwhelmed by the defences of their caterpillar larders. Without the wasp, the virus would never be able to reproduce. Some viruses may be able to live happily alongside their host with little ill effect; others may even be beneficial in some way. But this is the first example of a virus co-evolving with its host in a compulsory binding pact.