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Biology and Ecology of Baculoviruses (click here for publications in PDF format)

Understanding the ecology of insect pathogenic baculoviruses requires a basic appreciation of their biology.

Baculoviruses (comprising nucleopolyhedroviruses and granuloviruses) have two virion forms.

The occlusion derived virions infect insect midgut cells following ingestion of contaminated foliage by susceptible insect larvae.

These virions fuse with the cell membrane releasing nucleocapsids into the cell.

The nucleocapsids migrate the nucleus and begin replication or pass straight through the midgut cell to infect the cells of other tissues.

Initial replication results in the production of virions that bud through the basal cell membrane.

These budded virions disperse throughout the insect.

Later in infection, virions are enveloped (singly or in groups) and are occluded into large (~1-2 µm) occlusion bodies (OBs) designed for insect-to-insect transmission.

Multiple enveloping appears to be a strategy for overcoming host cell responses to viral infection, but this has important evolutionary consequences because each cell can be infected by multiple virus genotypes.

Shortly before death, the infected insects become pale and flaccid and often climb to the apical points of the plant where they die.

The body ruptures releasing millions of OBs that contaminate foliage for transmission to other larvae.

Once ingested, the OBs dissolve in the highly alkaline midgut of phytophagous insects, liberating the occlusion derived virions for the next cycle of infection.

Baculovirus virions are occluded into a matrix of protein that protects then in the environment for transmission to new insect hosts (mainly Lepidoptera)

Rod-shaped virions are enveloped in the cell nucleus and occluded by a protein matrix

Infection of Spodoptera exigua by a baculovirus pathogen (nucleopolyhedrovirus).

Nucleopolyhedrovirus infection of Spodoptera exigua – a nasty way to die!

Baculovirus can be dispersed by predatory invertebrates such as this spider.  Predators generally have acid guts that do not dissolve the virus occlusion bodies.

Predatory invertebrates eat virus-infected prey and subsequently disperse OBs, over distances of many meters, in their faeces (photo R. Lasa).

Because most of these viruses only infect a few closely related species of insects, particularly Lepidoptera, they may interact passively with other insects to achieve dispersal and/or transmission to new hosts.

For example, the OBs do not dissolve in the acid guts of predatory insects.

As a result, predators that consume virus infected hosts may disperse the OBs during several days and over considerable distances as they defecate the remains of their infected victim. 

Similarly, parasitoid wasps that have stung an infected insect can act as vectors introducing the virus to susceptible hosts during subsequent acts of oviposition.

In these cases, the ability of the wasp’s offspring to develop in an infected host depends critically on the speed of kill of the virus and the rate of development of the immature wasp



Baculovirus occlusion bodies protect the virus in the environment for long periods.

The occlusion bodies are highly resistant and can survive long periods in the environment

The soil represents a major virus reservoir in the environment.

OBs can persist in acid or neutral soils for months or years before being transported back onto leaf surfaces by rainsplash, air currents, or by the movement of soil surface dwelling arthropods.

Recent work (Murillo et al., 2006) indicates that certain genotypes present in baculovirus populations may be better adapted to survival in soils than others.

The principal factors that limit OB persistence in the environment are solar UV radiation and exposure to alkaline conditions such as occur in calcium rich soils and on the leaf surfaces of certain plants (e.g. cotton).

OBs can be isolated from soil samples by mixing the soil with insect diet and feeding the mixture to susceptible larvae, a technique developed by Richards & Christian (1999).  Click here to see how we are using this technique for the study of Spodoptera nucleopolyhedroviruses.


Baculovirus populations are genetically heterogeneous and individual isolates often comprise a mixture of different genotypes, including defective variants that are incapable of achieving transmission or on their own.

The interactions between genotypes can have surprising consequences for the phenotype of the mixture and the probabilities of transmission of each of the constituent genotypes.

For example, work by López-Ferber et al. (2003) has demonstrated increases in pathogenicity of mixtures containing complete and defective genotypes.

Repeated steps of insect-to-insect transmission of such mixtures rapidly results in an equilibrium in which the proportion of defective genotypes is precisely the proportion seen in the wild population.

This work underlines the importance of genotypic diversity on the transmissibility and stability in the structure of baculovirus populations.

Interactions between deletion and complete baculovirus (nucleopolyhedrovirus) genotypes result in increased pathogenicity.

Experimental virus populations comprising proportions of 0.1, 0.5 or 0.9 of a defective genotype (C) and 0.9, 0.5 or 0.1 of a complete genotype (B) rapidly converge to an equilibrium of 0.25C + 0.75B following repeated steps of insect-to-insect transmission. The results of two replicate experiments are shown (a, b). (Simón et al., 2006 Proc. R. Soc. B. 273, 783 - 790).


Click here for publications on baculovirus ecology

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HOMEPAGE Iridoviruses Virus insecticides Spinosad Mosquitoes blackflies & ticks Predators, parasitoids, pathogens Others Students


Trevor Williams - Página personal en español