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These Termites Turn Your House into a Palace of Poop | Deep Look

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Channel: Deep Look
Categories: Biology   |   Environmental   |   Science  
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Termites cause billions of dollars in damage annually – but they need help to do it. So they carry tiny organisms around with them in their gut. Together, termites and microorganisms can turn the wood in your house into a palace of poop.

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Termites such as dampwood termites use their cardboard-like poop pellets to build up their nests, turning a human house into a termite toilet. “They build their own houses out of their own feces,” said entomologist Michael Scharf, of Purdue University, in Indiana.

And while they’re using their poop as a building material, termites are also feeding on the wood. They’re one of the few animals that can extract nutrients from wood. But it turns out that they need help to do this.

A termite’s gut is host to a couple dozen species of protists, organisms that are neither animals, nor plants, nor fungi. Scientists have found that several of them help termites break down wood.

When some protists are eliminated from the termite’s gut, the insect can’t get any nutrition out of the wood. This is a weakness that biologists hope to exploit as a way to get rid of termites using biology rather than chemicals.

Louisiana State University entomologist Chinmay Tikhe is working to genetically engineer a bacterium found in the Formosan termite’s gut so that the bacterium will destroy the gut protists. The idea would be to sneak these killer bacteria into the termite colony on some sort of bait the termites would eat and carry back with them.

“It’s like a Trojan Horse,” said Tikhe, referring to the strategy used by the Greeks to sneak their troops into the city of Troy using a wooden horse that was the city’s emblem.

The bacteria would then kill the protists that help the termite derive nutrition from wood. The termites would eventually starve.

--- How do termites eat wood?

Termites gnaw on the wood. Then they mix it with enzymes that start to break it down. But they need help turning the cellulose in wood into nutrients. They get help from hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of species of microbes that live inside their guts. One bacterium, for example, combines nitrogen from the air and calories from the wood to make protein for the termites. A termite’s gut is also host to a couple dozen species of protists. In the termite’s hindgut, protists ferment the wood into a substance called acetate, which gives the termite energy.

--- How do termites get into our houses?

Termites can crawl up into a house from the soil through specialized tubes made of dirt and saliva, or winged adults can fly in, or both. This depends on the species and caste member involved.

--- What do termites eat in our houses?

Once they’re established in our houses, termites attack and feed on sources of cellulose, a major component of wood, says entomologist Vernard Lewis, of the University of California, Berkeley. This could include anything from structural wood and paneling, to furniture and cotton clothing. Termites also will eat dead or living trees, depending on the species.

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University of California Integrated Pest Management Program’s web page on termites:

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