How Gut Microbes Allowed Termites To Subdue The World

Termites have become among the most successful clades of animals, yet they could not have done it without their intestine bacteria. A analyze of this microbiota has uncovered something inordinately complex and finely tuned, as well as the role of cannibalism in the termites’ success.

Breaking down the lignocellulose of wood is hard, and few animals have evolved to do it. The bacteria in a termite’s gut convert their food to sugars, which then become the termite’s energy source. Running out how this is done could be the key to better biofuels. We could look at termites as nothing more than vehicles that move their bacteria around to access more wood. Indeed, gut bacteria make up an astounding two-thirds of termites weight. However, this misses the other accomplishment of termites: get diverse bacteria to cooperate with exceptional efficiency.

“There can be up to 5,000 different species of microbe’ machines’ in a termite intestine, and many thousand clones of each kind, ” Professor Nathan Lo of Sydney University said in a statement. Humans have about 1,000 species, and as Lo noted to IFLScience, the human gut is a lot larger, making the ratio by volume seem a lot more impressive.

Although the importance of termite gut bacteria has been known for a century, Lo told IFLScience there’s been debate about these microbes’ transmission. One theory held the latter are pass away from generation to generation within the nest, while the other proposed termites picked them up from their environment.

In Current Biology, Lo has demonstrated that while much transmission takes place within the nest, transfer also occurs between termite species. Lo told IFLScience: “When comparing the intestine bacteria we analyzed with everything else on the databases, termite bacteria was always more similar to species from other termites than to anything else.” He concluded that termites rarely collect new bacterial species from the soil, and rapidly adapt what they adopt to fit their needs.

From there, bacteria have a gruesome route of getting to other termite species. “In fights between soldiers of one colony with soldiers or workers of another colony, the body of the losing termite can be severed and its intestine contents( containing the microbes) ingested by the winning termite, ” Lo said.

Having evolved from rotten wood-eating cockroaches, termites spent the first hundred million years of their existence sticking to what they knew. However, Lo told IFLScience diversification began 40 -5 0 million years ago, with some species eating leaf litter while others went the whole way to ingesting soil.

The extent of termite success can be measured by estimates that their collective weight is greater than any other related group of animals besides cattles. Calculates are of course uncertain, but Lo told IFLScience available figures suggest termites collectively weigh more than all the world’s krill, whales, or humans.

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