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"Sex Puppeteers" Force Sex Change, Virgin Birth in Bugs via Genes

Fast-spreading parasite species force sex changes on their victims, induce virgin births, and turn animals into "gross monsters"—among other horrors.

Now a new study has decoded how the bacteria may be able to wreak their havoc: by shutting down immune systems.

The parasites, of the Wolbachia bacteria genus, cause a gene in wasps to stifle the insect's protein-based "alarms" against the bacterial invaders, say researchers who mapped the genomes of three species of Nasonia wasp for the first time.

As a result, the wasps' antibacterial defenses are never deployed, allowing Wolbachia to begin their dirty work.

This mechanism may also be employed in the other insects and the mites, spiders, and nematode worms that Wolbachia meddle with. For all these creatures, the hosts' reproductive systems are revamped with freakish results—and an apparent anti-male agenda.

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