Divergent hosts often associate with intracellular microbes that influence their fitness. Maternally transmitted Wolbachia bacteria are the most common of these endosymbionts, due largely to cytoplasmic incompatibility (CI) that kills uninfected embryos fertilized by Wolbachia-infected males. Closely related infections in females rescue CI, providing a relative fitness advantage that drives Wolbachia to high frequencies. One prophage-associated gene (cifA) governs rescue, and two contribute to CI (cifA and cifB), but CI strength ranges from very strong to very weak for unknown reasons. Here, we investigate CI-strength variation and its mechanistic underpinnings in a phylogenetic context across 20 million years (MY) of Wolbachia evolution in Drosophila hosts diverged up to 50 MY. These Wolbachia encode diverse Cif proteins (100% to 7.4% pairwise similarity), and AlphaFold structural analyses suggest that CifB sequence similarities do not predict structural similarities. We demonstrate that cifB-transcript levels in testes explain CI strength across all but two focal systems. Despite phylogenetic discordance among cifs and the bulk of the Wolbachia genome, closely related Wolbachia tend to cause similar CI strengths and transcribe cifB at similar levels. This indicates that other non-cif regions of the Wolbachia genome modulate cif-transcript levels. CI strength also increases with the length of the host’s larval life stage, presumably due to prolonged cif action. Our findings reveal that cifB-transcript levels largely explain CI strength, while highlighting other covariates. Elucidating CI’s mechanism contributes to our understanding of Wolbachia spread in natural systems and to improving the efficacy of CI-based biocontrol of arboviruses and agricultural pests globally.
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