The Atlantic

When an Animal's Sex Is Set by a Microbe

DNA from a bacterium called Wolbachia seems to control whether pillbugs are male or female.
Source: Gallhampshire / Flickr

Pillbug. Roly-poly. Woodlouse. Doodle bug. This endearing creature, which goes by many names, is common throughout North America and Europe. It seeks moisture, scurries from light, and rolls into a ball when threatened. And it often finds itself embroiled in an evolutionary war with a bacterium. At stake is its very sexual identity.

In pillbugs, sex is determined by two chromosomes: Z and W. Individuals who inherit two Zs develop as males, while ZW individuals become female. But in some populations, these rules are overwritten by a microbe called Wolbachia.

Wolbachia infects the cells of

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