Termites cause $40 billion worth of damage world wide every year. Untold amounts of money have been spent in the search for a better way to control the pests. This has been an ongoing struggle for decades.
For close to 50 years, researchers have tried unsuccessfully to use microbes as a biological termite control. University of Florida researchers have recently discovered what makes termites so resistant to most diseases. By using their own feces to build their nests, termites promote the growth of helpful bacteria. These bacteria have been found to stave off pathogens.
The 9 year study took a new angle on termite control. Rather than focusing on using fungi to control termites, researchers asked why it hadn’t worked so far. They started by finding and separating more than 500 strains of bacteria that were collected from 5 termite colonies around Broward County Florida. About 70 percent of those bacteria proved to be active in suppressing other bacteria, yeast and fungi. Researchers then focused on a particular strain called Streptomyces which was found in all five nests.
When disease causing bacteria were introduced into sterile nest environments, the bacteria thrived and the termites died. When Streptomyces was added, it protected the termites. When researchers added another bacteria to the protected nest, it had little effect. This lead scientists to believe that Streptomyces produces antimicrobial agents while feeding on termite feces within the nest.
Next, researchers want to find out how termites developed to build this system of disease prevention and whether it is a stable system or one that is forever changing. They are hoping their studies will lead to a whole new approach to biological termite control and possibly even some advances in the creation of human antibiotics.
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