The cost of metabolic interactions in symbioses between insects and bacteria with reduced genomes

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Various intracellular bacterial symbionts that provide their host with essential nutrients have much-reduced genomes, attributed largely to genomic decay and relaxed selection. To obtain quantitative estimates of the metabolic function of these bacteria, we reconstructed genome-and transcriptome-informed metabolic models of three xylem-feeding insects that bear two bacterial symbionts with complementary metabolic functions: a primary symbiont, Sulcia, that has codiversified with the insects, and a coprimary symbiont of distinct taxonomic origin and with different degrees of genome reduction in each insect species (Hodgkinia in a cicada, Baumannia in a sharpshooter, and Sodalis in a spittlebug). Our simulations reveal extensive bidirectional flux of multiple metabolites between each symbiont and the host, but near-complete metabolic segregation (i.e., near absence of metabolic cross-feeding) between the two symbionts, a likely mode of host control over symbiont metabolism. Genome reduction of the symbionts is associated with an increased number of host metabolic inputs to the symbiont and also reduced metabolic cost to the host. In particular, Sulcia and Hodgkinia with genomes of ≤0.3 Mb are calculated to recycle ~30 to 80% of host-derived nitrogen to essential amino acids returned to the host, while Baumannia and Sodalis with genomes of ≥0.6 Mb recycle 10 to 15% of host nitrogen. We hypothesize that genome reduction of symbionts may be driven by selection for increased host control and reduced host costs, as well as by the stochastic process of genomic decay and relaxed selection. IMPORTANCE Current understanding of many animal-microbial symbioses involving unculturable bacterial symbionts with much-reduced genomes derives almost entirely from nonquantitative inferences from genome data. To overcome this limitation, we reconstructed multipartner metabolic models that quantify both the metabolic fluxes within and between three xylem-feeding insects and their bacterial symbionts. This revealed near-complete metabolic segregation between cooccurring bacterial symbionts, despite extensive metabolite exchange between each symbiont and the host, suggestive of strict host controls over the metabolism of its symbionts. We extended the model analysis to investigate metabolic costs. The positive relationship between symbiont genome size and the metabolic cost incurred by the host points to fitness benefits to the host of bearing symbionts with small genomes. The multicompartment metabolic models developed here can be applied to other symbioses that are not readily tractable to experimental approaches.




Ankrah, N. Y. D., Chouaia, B., & Douglas, A. E. (2018). The cost of metabolic interactions in symbioses between insects and bacteria with reduced genomes. MBio, 9(5).

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