Significant heterogeneity in Wolbachia copy number within and between populations of Onchocerca volvulus Academic Article uri icon


  • Wolbachia are intracellular bacteria found in arthropods and several filarial nematode species. The filarial Wolbachia have been proposed to be involved in the immunopathology associated with onchocerciasis. Higher Wolbachia-to-nematode ratios have been reported in the savannah-ecotype compared to the forest-ecotype, and have been interpreted as consistent with a correlation between Wolbachia density and disease severity. However, factors such as geographic stratification and ivermectin drug exposure can lead to significant genetic heterogeneity in the nematode host populations, so we investigated whether Wolbachia copy number variation is also associated with these underlying factors.Genomic DNA was prepared from single adult nematodes representing forest and savannah ecotypes sampled from Togo, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire and Mali. A qPCR assay was developed to measure the number of Wolbachia genome(s) per nematode genome. Next-generation sequencing (NGS) was also used to measure relative Wolbachia copy number, and independently verify the qPCR assay.Significant variation was observed within the forest (range: 0.02 to 452.99; median: 10.58) and savannah (range: 0.01 to 1106.25; median: 9.10) ecotypes, however, no significant difference between ecotypes (P = 0.645) was observed; rather, strongly significant Wolbachia variation was observed within and between the nine study communities analysed (P = 0.021), independent of ecotype. Analysis of ivermectin-treated and untreated nematodes by qPCR showed no correlation (P = 0.869); however, an additional analysis of a subset of the nematodes by qPCR and NGS revealed a correlation between response to ivermectin treatment and Wolbachia copy number (P = 0.020).This study demonstrates that extensive within and between population variation exists in the Wolbachia content of individual adult O. volvulus. The origin and functional significance of such variation (up to ~ 100,000-fold between worms; ~10 to 100-fold between communities) in the context of the proposed mutualistic relationship between the worms and the bacteria, and between the presence of Wolbachia and clinical outcome of infection, remains unclear. These data do not support a correlation between Wolbachia copy number and forest or savannah ecotype, and may have implications for the development of anti-Wolbachia drugs as a macrofilaricidal treatment of onchocerciasis. The biological significance of a correlation between variation in Wolbachia copy number and ivermectin response remains unexplained.

publication date

  • 2017