We report on the probable horizontal transfer of a mitochondrial gene, cytb, between species of Neotropical bruchid beetles, in a zone where these species are sympatric.
The bruchid beetles Acanthoscelides obtectus, A. obvelatus, A. argillaceus and Zabrotes subfasciatus develop on various bean species in Mexico. Whereas A. obtectus and A. obvelatus develop on Phaseolus vulgaris in the Mexican Altiplano, A. argillaceus feeds on P. lunatus in the Pacific coast. The generalist Z. subfasciatus feeds on both bean species, and is sympatric with A. obtectus and A. obvelatus in the Mexican Altiplano, and with A. argillaceus in the Pacific coast. In order to assess the phylogenetic position of these four species, we amplified and sequenced one nuclear (28S rRNA) and two mitochondrial (cytb, COI) genes.
Whereas species were well segregated in topologies obtained for COI and 28S rRNA, an unexpected pattern was obtained in the cytb phylogenetic tree. In this tree, individuals from A. obtectus and A. obvelatus, as well as Z. subfasciatus individuals from the Mexican Altiplano, clustered together in a unique little variable monophyletic unit. In contrast, A. argillaceus and Z. subfasciatus individuals from the Pacific coast clustered in two separated clades, identically to the pattern obtained for COI and 28S rRNA. An additional analysis showed that Z. subfasciatus individuals from the Mexican Altiplano also possessed the cytb gene present in individuals of this species from the Pacific coast. Zabrotes subfasciatus individuals from the Mexican Altiplano thus demonstrated two cytb genes, an "original" one and an "infectious" one, showing 25% of nucleotide divergence. The "infectious" cytb gene seems to be under purifying selection and to be expressed in mitochondria.
The high degree of incongruence of the cytb tree with patterns for other genes is discussed in the light of three hypotheses: experimental contamination, hybridization, and pseudogenisation. However, none of these seem able to explain the patterns observed. A fourth hypothesis, involving recent horizontal gene transfer (HGT) between A. obtectus and A. obvelatus, and from one of these species to Z. subfasciatus in the Mexican Altiplano, seems the only plausible explanation. The HGT between our study species seems to have occurred recently, and only in a zone where the three beetles are sympatric and share common host plants. This suggests that transfer could have been effected by some external vector such as a eukaryotic or viral parasite, which might still host the transferred fragment.
This article was reviewed by Eric Bapteste, Adam Eyre-Walker and Alexey Kondrashov.