Entomopathogenic nematodes (EPNs) are potent insect parasites and have been used for pest control in agriculture. Despite the complexity of the EPN infection process, hosts are typically killed within 5 days of initial infection. When free-living infective juveniles (IJs) infect a host, they release their bacterial symbiont, secrete toxic products, and undergo notable morphological changes. Collectively, this process is referred to as “activation” and represents the point in a nematode’s life cycle when it becomes actively parasitic. The effect of different host tissues and IJ age on activation, and how activation itself is related to virulence, are not well understood. Here, we employed a recently developed bioassay, which quantifies IJ activation, as a tool to address these matters. Appreciating that activation is a key part of the EPN infection process, we hypothesized that activation would positively correlate to virulence. Using the EPNs Steinernema carpocapsae
and S. feltiae
we found that EPN activation is host-specific and influenced by infective juvenile age. Additionally, our data suggest that activation has a context-dependent influence on virulence and could be predictive of virulence in some cases such as when IJ activation is especially low.
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