Japanese Scientists Unintentionally Uncover Male-Specific Insect Virus in Startling Discovery


A team of researchers from Minami Kyushu University in Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan, serendipitously unearthed a virus that exclusively targets male insects, a breakthrough that may one day assist in controlling the populations of disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes.

A Caterpillar: The accidental discovery of the virus, later named Spodoptera litura male-killing virus or SLMKV, occurred after Misato Terao, a research technician at the university, found a green caterpillar known as a tobacco cutworm, feeding on impatiens inside the campus greenhouse, as reported by The New York Times.

Instead of disposing of the intruder, Misato brought the caterpillar to the university’s insect physiologist, Yoshinori Shintani, who believed it would serve as a good feeder for other insects.

Startling Discovery: Days later, Yoshinori checked on the caterpillar after placing it with other insects and was surprised to find that all 50 moths that emerged were female.

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Curious about the findings, Yoshinori decided to breed the female moths from the greenhouse with male moths from his home. After going through the process, he discovered that only three males were born in the 13-generation descendants of the moths.

Armed with this new information, Yoshinori and his colleague, Daisuke Kageyama, a researcher at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Japan, believed they had stumbled upon a “male killer” among their insects.

Going Further: Upon conducting an experiment to determine the cause of the phenomenon, the group concluded that they were dealing with a virus after genetic analysis revealed telltale signs. They also attempted to eliminate the “male-killing” effect with antibiotics, but the treatment was ineffective against the virus, only acting on bacteria.

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It was revealed that only two types of male-killing viruses had been documented, and SKLMV may have evolved independently, according to The New York Times.

The Japanese scientists observed that the maternally inherited virus they discovered belonged to the Partitiviridae family, but emphasized in the study that “it was unknown whether male-killing viruses were restricted to Partitiviridae or could be found in other taxa.”

They also found that SLMKV is infectious and inheritable after infecting some tobacco moths. The results showed that the next generation produced more females, while subsequent generations contained no males.

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The scientists believed that the virus’s effect was reignited due to the caterpillar’s environment being in the perfect climate – not too cold for the tobacco cutworms and not too hot for the SLMKV.

Sharing the News: After the discovery, Yoshinori, Daisuke, Misato, and other researchers documented their findings in a study published in The Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS) on Monday.

Potential Controller: This latest discovery could aid in regulating the population of agricultural pests related to the tobacco worms.

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This discovery could also help advance the search for a “female killer” that could prove beneficial in controlling the population of disease vectors like mosquitoes.


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