eastern subterranean termites
May 21, 2014

Termite Genome Sequenced, Could Lead To More Effective Pest Control Methods In The Future

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A large international team of researchers has announced the successful sequencing of the Nevada dampwood termite genome, according to a new study in Nature Communications.

The study team said that not only is the genome crucial for understanding the social insect, it also provides information that could be used for more effective pest control.

"The termite genome reveals many unique genetic targets that can be disrupted for better termite control," said Michael Scharf, an entomology professor at Purdue University, in a statement. "Depending on which gene or protein that is targeted, we could disrupt termites' neurological processes, molting, digestive factors or cuticle formation. We're just limited by our imagination."

While Nevada dampwood termites don't cause substantial damage to buildings, they are closely associated with other major pests such as the eastern subterranean termite, which is the predominant pest in the Central and the Eastern US.

Termites cause an estimated $40 billion in damage and control costs each year the study team said. The pests are typically controlled using chemicals, which often leach into the ground and affect other organisms.

"While current pesticides are very effective products, the problem is that you're injecting large volumes of them into the soil around the house," Scharf said. "It would be nice to move to a greener technology, and that's what the genome sequence could enable us to do."

He went on to say small amounts of treated timber, which could be shared with the colony, might be used to bait termites. Newer innovations such as gene silencing could also be used to eliminate the pests. Gene silencing methods might target essential bits of RNA necessary for the insects' survival.

"With termites, you don't have to impact all of them," Scharf said. "Targeting just a fraction of the workers could cause an entire colony to collapse."

The sequencing also identified genes used in the chemical communications among termites. These chemical signals are used to signal aggression or mating intentions.

"There's a lot of social strife in a termite colony, and it's got to stay cohesive to survive," Scharf said. "Chemical communication is crucial to keeping the labor force in place."

The genome can also help scientists better comprehend the symbiosis between termites and the over 4,000 species of bacteria that flourish in their guts – known to help digestion and pathogen defense. Previous reports of the termite gut were hindered by the lack of ability to separate between termite and microbe genes. Understanding the gut biome is critical, Scharf said. The Purdue scientist is currently researching the enzymes that termites use to break down wood. Determining these enzymes may lead to novel procedures of generating cellulosic biofuels.

"The genome provides a well-defined roadmap that could help us find the right cocktail of enzymes to break wood down into its simple sugars," he said. "It takes a lot of the guesswork out."

Despite their reputation, termites can actually serve as inspiration. In February, Harvard University engineers announced the creation of robots capable of copying the way termites build mounds that are hundreds of times their size without detailed plans. The team said they were able to accomplish this through the development of complex algorithms.