The unusual reproductive system of head and body lice (Pediculus humanus)

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Abstract

Insect reproduction is extremely variable, but the implications of alternative genetic systems are often overlooked in studies on the evolution of insecticide resistance. Both ecotypes of Pediculus humanus (Phthiraptera: Pediculidae), the human head and body lice, are human ectoparasites, the control of which is challenged by the recent spread of resistance alleles. The present study conclusively establishes for the first time that both head and body lice reproduce through paternal genome elimination (PGE), an unusual genetic system in which males transmit only their maternally derived chromosomes. Here, we investigate inheritance patterns of parental genomes using a genotyping approach across families of both ecotypes and show that heterozygous males exclusively or preferentially pass on one allele only, whereas females transmit both in a Mendelian fashion. We do however observe occasional transmission of paternal chromosomes through males, representing the first known case of PGE in which whole-genome meiotic drive is incomplete. Finally, we discuss the potential implications of this finding for the evolution of resistance and invite the development of new theoretical models of how this knowledge might contribute to increasing the success of pediculicide-based management schemes.

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