- LBBE, CNRS, Lyon, France
- Adaptation, Genetic conflicts, Genome Evolution, Reproduction and Sex, Species interactions
The insertion of a mitochondrial selfish element into the nuclear genome and its consequences
Some evolutionary insights into an accidental homing endonuclease passage from mitochondria to the nucleus
Not all genetic elements composing genomes are there for the benefit of their carrier. Many have no consequences on fitness, or too mild ones to be eliminated by selection, and thus stem from neutral processes. Many others are indeed the product of selection, but one acting at a different level, increasing the fitness of some elements of the genome only, at the expense of the “organism” as a whole. These can be called selfish genetic elements, and come into a wide variety of flavours , illustrating many possible means to cheat with “fair” reproductive processes such as meiosis, and thus get overrepresented in the offspring of their hosts. Producing copies of itself through transposition is one such strategy; a very successful one indeed, explaining a large part of the genomic content of many organisms. Killing non carrier gametes following meiosis in heterozygous carriers is another one. Less know and less common is the ability of some elements to turn heterozygous carriers into homozygous ones, that will thus transmit the selfish elements to all offspring instead of half. This is achieved by nucleic sequences encoding so-called “Homing endonucleases” (HEs). These proteins tend to induce double strand breaks of DNA specifically in regions homologous to their own insertion sites. The recombination machinery is such that the intact homologous region, that is, the one carrying the HE sequence, is then used as a template for the reparation of the break, resulting in the effective conversion of a non-carrier allele into a carrier allele. Such elements can also occur in the mitochondrial genomes of organisms where mitochondria are not strictly transmitted by one parent only, offering mitochondrial HEs some opportunities for “homing” into new non carrier genomes. This is the case in yeasts, where HEs were first reported [2,3].
In this new study, based on genomic experimental data from the fungal maize pathogen Ustilago maydis, Julien Dutheil and colleagues  document one possible evolutionary pathway for which little evidence existed before: the passage of a mitochondrial HE into the nuclear genome. The GC content of this region leaves little doubt on its mitochondrial origin, and homologs can indeed be found in the mitochondrial genomes of close relatives. Strangely enough, U. maydis itself does not appear to carry this selfish element in its own mitochondria, suggesting it may have been acquired from a different species, or be subject to a sufficiently rapid turnover to have been recently lost.
Many elements of the story uncovered by this study remain mysterious. How, in the first place, was this HE gene inserted in a nuclear genomic region that shows no apparent homology with its original insertion site, making typical “homing” a not-so-likely explanation? This question may in fact be generalised to many HE systems: is the first insertion into a homing site always the product of a typical homing event, which implies the presence of an homologous template DNA fragment, or can HE genes insert through other means? But then, why specifically in regions that would be targeted by the nuclease they encode? What is the evolutionary fate of this newly inserted element? The new gene may well be on its way to pseudogenisation, as suggested by the truncation of its upper part, precluding its functioning as a HE, and the lack of evidence of selective constraints through dN/dS analysis; but the mutation generated by the insertion event may have phenotypic implications, possibly through the partial truncation of another gene, encoding a helicase. How old is this insertion? The fact that it has accumulated some mutations makes a very recent event rather unlikely, but this insertion has been detected in only one isolate of U. maydis, suggesting it is not so frequent in natural populations.
Whatever the answers to these open questions, that will hopefully be addressed by further work on this system, the present study has revealed that horizontal transmission enlarges the scope of possible evolutionary consequences of HE genes, that may move not only between mitochondrial genomes, but also occasionally into a nucleus.
 Burt, A., and Trivers, R. (2006). Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements. Belknap Press.
 Coen, D., Deutch, J., Netter, P., Petrochillo, E., and Slonimski, P. (1970). Mitochondrial genetics. I. Methodology and phenomenology. Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology, 24, 449-496.
 Colleaux, L., D’Auriol, L., Betermier, M., Cottarel, G., Jacquier, A., Galibert, F., and Dujon, B. (1986). Universal code equivalent of a yeast mitochondrial intron reading frame is expressed into E. coli as a specific double strand endonuclease. Cell, 44, 521–533. doi: 10.1016/0092-8674(86)90262-X
 Dutheil, J. Y., Münch, K., Schotanus, K., Stukenbrock, E. H., and Kahmann, R. (2020). The insertion of a mitochondrial selfish element into the nuclear genome and its consequences. bioRxiv, 787044, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Evolutionary Biology. doi: 10.1101/787044
Birth of a W sex chromosome by horizontal transfer of Wolbachia bacterial symbiont genome
A newly evolved W(olbachia) sex chromosome in pillbug!
In some taxa such as fish and arthropods, closely related species can have different mechanisms of sex determination and in particular different sex chromosomes, which implies that new sex chromosomes are constantly evolving . Several models have been developed to explain this pattern but empirical data are lacking and the causes of the fast sex chromosome turn over remain mysterious [2-4]. Leclerq et al.  in a paper that just came out in PNAS have focused on one possible explanation: Wolbachia. This widespread intracellular symbiont of arthropods can manipulate its host reproduction in a number of ways, often by biasing the allocation of resources toward females, the transmitting sex. Perhaps the most spectacular example is seen in pillbugs, where Wolbachia commonly turns infected males into females, thus doubling its effective transmission to grandchildren. Extensive investigations on this phenomenon were initiated 30 years ago in the host species Armadillidium vulgare. The recent paper by Leclerq et al. beautifully validates an hypothesis formulated in these pioneer studies , namely, that a nuclear insertion of the Wolbachia genome caused the emergence of new female determining chromosome, that is, a new sex chromosome.
Many populations of A. vulgare are infected by the feminising Wolbachia strain wVulC, where the spread of the bacterium has also induced the loss of the ancestral female determining W chromosome (because feminized ZZ individuals produce females without transmitting any W). In these populations, all individuals carry two Z chromosomes, so that the bacterium is effectively the new sex-determining factor: specimens that received Wolbachia from their mother become females, while the occasional loss of Wolbachia from mothers to eggs allows the production of males. Intriguingly, studies from natural populations also report that some females are devoid both of Wolbachia and the ancestral W chromosome, suggesting the existence of new female determining nuclear factor, the hypothetical “f element”.
Leclerq et al.  found the f element and decrypted its origin. By sequencing the genome of a strain carrying the putative f element, they found that a nearly complete wVulC genome got inserted in the nuclear genome and that the chromosome carrying the insertion has effectively become a new W chromosome. The insertion is indeed found only in females, PCRs and pedigree analysis tell. Although the Wolbachia-derived gene(s) that became sex-determining gene(s) remain to be identified among many possible candidates, the genomic and genetic evidence are clear that this Wolbachia insertion is determining sex in this pillbug strain. Leclerq et al.  also found that although this insertion is quite recent, many structural changes (rearrangements, duplications) have occurred compared to the wVulC genome, which study will probably help understand which bacterial gene(s) have retained a function in the nucleus of the pillbug. Also, in the future, it will be interesting to understand how and why exactly the nuclear inserted Wolbachia rose in frequency in the pillbug population and how the cytoplasmic Wolbachia was lost, and to tease apart the roles of selection and drift in this event. We highly recommend this paper, which provides clear evidence that Wolbachia has caused sex chromosome turn over in one species, opening the conjecture that it might have done so in many others.
 Bachtrog D, Mank JE, Peichel CL, Kirkpatrick M, Otto SP, Ashman TL, Hahn MW, Kitano J, Mayrose I, Ming R, Perrin N, Ross L, Valenzuela N, Vamosi JC. 2014. Tree of Sex Consortium. Sex determination: why so many ways of doing it? PLoS Biology 12: e1001899. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001899
 van Doorn GS, Kirkpatrick M. 2007. Turnover of sex chromosomes induced by sexual conflict. Nature 449: 909-912. doi: 10.1038/nature06178
 Cordaux R, Bouchon D, Grève P. 2011. The impact of endosymbionts on the evolution of host sex-determination mechanisms. Trends in Genetics 27: 332-341. doi: 10.1016/j.tig.2011.05.002
 Blaser O, Neuenschwander S, Perrin N. 2014. Sex-chromosome turnovers: the hot-potato model. American Naturalist 183: 140-146. doi: 10.1086/674026
 Leclercq S, Thézé J, Chebbi MA, Giraud I, Moumen B, Ernenwein L, Grève P, Gilbert C, Cordaux R. 2016. Birth of a W sex chromosome by horizontal transfer of Wolbachia bacterial symbiont genome. Proceeding of the National Academy of Science USA 113: 15036-15041. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1608979113
 Legrand JJ, Juchault P. 1984. Nouvelles données sur le déterminisme génétique et épigénétique de la monogénie chez le crustacé isopode terrestre Armadillidium vulgare Latr. Génétique Sélection Evolution 16: 57–84. doi: 10.1186/1297-9686-16-1-57