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Individual Highlight

Giving Termites “Stomach Aches”

Photo of Regions of the termite digestive tract showing the large hindgut, which is, essentially, an anaerobic bioreactor packed full of microbes that digest cellulose.Regions of the termite digestive tract showing the large hindgut, which is, essentially, an anaerobic bioreactor packed full of microbes that digest cellulose.Snapshot : Chitosan can be used to upset the microbial imbalance in the termite hindgut, leading to the establishment of three different bacterial pathogens.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Tang, Juliet D. 
Research Location : Forest Products Laboratory, Starkville, MS; Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS
Research Station : Forest Products Laboratory (FPL)
Year : 2018
Highlight ID : 1494

Summary

Chitosan is an antimicrobial chemical that can be inexpensively synthesized from chitin, a waste product of the shrimp industry. Forest Products Laboratory scientists are now trying to determine if this naturally derived chemical can be used to protect mass timber from termite damage in green building construction. Research showed that, at high enough concentrations, chitosan caused 100% mortality of subterranean termites. The mechanism appeared to involve changes in diversity of the microbes living in the termite hindgut. These microscopic organisms, which are primarily composed of protists and bacteria, are essential to termite survival because they break cellulose down into compounds that can be absorbed and used by the termite for growth. We found that termites fed sub-lethal amounts of chitosan exhibited a 12-fold reduction in total protist counts with only 2 of 10 protist species surviving compared to controls. Moreover, significant changes in bacterial diversity included establishment of three different species of bacterial pathogens. Although it is impossible to know what and how a termite feels, the observed microbial imbalance induced by the chitosan could very well be giving termites the worst “stomach ache” imaginable.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • none
  • Rubin Shmulsky, Mississippi State University