BACKGROUND: Primary bacterial endosymbionts of insects (p-endosymbionts) are thought to be undergoing the process of Muller's ratchet where they accrue slightly deleterious mutations due to genetic drift in small populations with negligible recombination rates. If this process were to go unchecked over time, theory predicts mutational meltdown and eventual extinction. Although genome degradation is common among p-endosymbionts, we do not observe widespread p-endosymbiont extinction, suggesting that Muller's ratchet may be slowed or even stopped over time. For example, selection may act to slow the effects of Muller's ratchet by removing slightly deleterious mutations before they go to fixation thereby causing a decrease in nucleotide substitutions rates in older p-endosymbiont lineages.
METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: To determine whether selection is slowing the effects of Muller's ratchet, we determined the age of the Candidatus Riesia/sucking louse assemblage and analyzed the nucleotide substitution rates of several p-endosymbiont lineages that differ in the length of time that they have been associated with their insect hosts. We find that Riesia is the youngest p-endosymbiont known to date, and has been associated with its louse hosts for only 13-25 My. Further, it is the fastest evolving p-endosymbiont with substitution rates of 19-34% per 50 My. When comparing Riesia to other insect p-endosymbionts, we find that nucleotide substitution rates decrease dramatically as the age of endosymbiosis increases.
CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: A decrease in nucleotide substitution rates over time suggests that selection may be limiting the effects of Muller's ratchet by removing individuals with the highest mutational loads and decreasing the rate at which new mutations become fixed. This countering effect of selection could slow the overall rate of endosymbiont extinction.
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