Leafhopper Insects Enlighten Researchers About Complex Bacterial Relationships

December 5, 2018

All complex life evolves in alliance with, in defense of or in reaction to bacteria.

A new paper by UC Merced Professor Gordon Bennett demonstrates one of the novel ways the relationship can evolve and begins to repaint a picture that humans have only begun to understand.

Bennett’s research, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , shows that over millions of years, leafhopper insects have evolved an extremely deep, complex relationship with two bacteria that live inside them.

Without this symbiosis, neither the bacteria nor the leafhoppers could live.

“This is a 300-million-year-old relationship,” said Bennett, an evolutionary biologist. “This is so ancient, it guided the diversification of these insects.”

Like most creatures, leafhopper insects rely on bacteria to carry out metabolic tasks that the insect cannot perform on its own. Until recently, though, there has been little study of what the host leafhopper provides to its beneficial guest bacteria.

The bacteria rely on their leafhopper hosts because they have lost 90 percent of their own genomes over the eons, and the leafhoppers rely on the bacteria to produce the 10 essential amino acids they need but cannot get from their plant sap-only diets.

Turns out that what the bacteria have lost over the millennia, the leafhoppers have gained.

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