Naturally occurring covert infections in lepidopteran populations can involve multiple viruses with potentially different transmission strategies. In this study, we characterized covert infection by two RNA viruses, Spodoptera exigua iflavirus 1 (SeIV-1) and Spodoptera exigua iflavirus 2 (SeIV-2) (family Iflaviridae) that naturally infect populations of Spodoptera exigua
, and examined their influence on susceptibility to patent disease by the nucleopolyhedrovirus Spodoptera exigua multiple nucleopolyhedrovirus (SeMNPV) (family Baculoviridae). The abundance of SeIV-1 genomes increased up to ten-thousand-fold across insect developmental stages after surface contamination of host eggs with a mixture of SeIV-1 and SeIV-2 particles, whereas the abundance of SeIV-2 remained constant across all developmental stages. Low levels of SeIV-2 infection were detected in all groups of insects, including those that hatched from surface-decontaminated egg masses. SeIV-1 infection resulted in reduced larval weight gain, and an unbalanced sex ratio, whereas larval developmental time, pupal weight, and adult emergence and fecundity were not significantly affected in infected adults. The inoculation of S. exigua
egg masses with iflavirus, followed by a subsequent infection with SeMNPV, resulted in an additive effect on larval mortality. The 50% lethal concentration (LC50
) of SeMNPV was reduced nearly 4-fold and the mean time to death was faster by 12 h in iflavirus-treated insects. These results suggest that inapparent iflavirus infections may be able to modulate the host response to a new pathogen, a finding that has particular relevance to the use of SeMNPV as the basis for biological pest control products.
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