Bacteria that changed the world: Wolbachia

In our Bacterial World exhibition we offer a selection of ten bacteria that have changed the world, some in profound ways. In this series of short fact-file posts we present one of the ten each week. This week’s bacteria are…

– the man-killers

Where they live
Up to 60 percent of insect species are infected with the bacterium Wolbachia, as are other species such as nematode worms.

Why they are important
Wolbachia selectively kills off males in many species of insect and alters the sex ratio of the population to its own advantage. However, some species of insect rely on it for protection against other threats.

How they are named
The bacteria take their name from Simeon Burt Wolbach, who along with Marshall Hertig co-discovered Wolbachia in 1924 in a mosquito.

How they work
Infected female insects pass the Wolbachia to their offspring – so the bacteria do everything they can to ensure females survive. Their strategies include killing male larvae, making males infertile, and rendering females able to reproduce without males.

Top image copyright: Joshua Blight (University of Oxford) & Steven Sinkins (University of Glasgow)

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