By Rachel Kaufman
As long as they’re in someone else’s house, termites are rather fascinating creatures.
The social insects live in colonies, like bees or ants, and build large nests that can stretch 300 feet (91 meters) across. There are more than 2,600 species of termites—and more than one quadrillion individual termites—on Earth. Their ability to digest wood and plant matter makes them an important part of a natural ecosystem. They’ve been spotted in both the White House and the Statue of Liberty. Oh, and their poop is one of their favorite building materials. (Watch video: inside a termite queen nest.)
They build nests with poop.
Yep, termites build their nests and “shelter tubes”—long, skinny tubes that let termites travel outside their nests without drying out—from a combination of chewed wood, dirt, and their own feces.
In the case of the Formosan subterranean termite, an invasive species originally from China and now found worldwide in warm climates including the southern U.S., the nests include a lot of this poopy material, known as carton. Scientists thought that all those germs in a warm, moist, enclosed environment would lead to termite disease, but a new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that the termite poop actually produces a natural antibiotic. (Also see “Gold ‘Mining’ Termites Found, May Lead Humans to Riches.”)
The poop feeds a particular species of bacteria, called Streptomyces #2338, which, the scientists found, produces a compound that inhibits the growth of a fungus that harms the colony. In fact, Streptomyces #2338 killed almost 70 percent of a sample of Metarhizium anisopliae over six weeks. Big bummer: M. anisopliae is used in some commercially available termite treatments. (Also see “Battling Termites? Just Add Sugar.”)
It’s made from wood.
But that’s not the only remarkable thing about termite poop. It’s made from wood, after all. And few animals can digest wood. Termites do it with the help of specialized microbes–their guts host one of the most complex microbial ecosystems in the animal world. The guts of the species Reticulitermes speratus, from Japan, contain not just bacteria but also single-celled organisms called archaea and protists. Some of the microorganisms living inside termites have never been seen anywhere else.
Humans may benefit.
Some of those exotic microbes could be helpful to humans as well. In one example, a cancer researcher found that a particular microorganism in a termite’s hindgut, roughly equivalent to a human’s colon, produces more centrin than any other creature known. Centrin is a protein that is related to cell division, and studying how centrin works has helped researchers pinpoint its role in runaway cell division—in other words, cancer.
Poop could produce power.
Scientists are also looking at how termite microbes produce hydrogen from digested wood. The microbes could be harnessed by humans to power hydrogen fuel cells, a type of battery that emits only water.
Termites feed each other poop.
Termites aren’t born with these helpful microbes inside them. Like many animals, they have to inoculate their bodies with them. Some animals transfer good bacteria from mother to newborn through nursing or kisses. Termites do it a little less charmingly: by feeding each other their poop. And each time a termite molts, it loses its gut microbiome and must chow down on another delicious meal of doo-doo.
As improbable as it may seem, poop-feeding—or proctodeal trophallaxis—has more benefits than simply juicing up a termite’s digestive system. According to one author who has heavily studied termites, “In addition to the transfer of microbial mutualists, [trophallaxis] permits the efficient use of nutrients, the recognition of colony mates, interindividual communication and the distribution of factors associated with caste differentiation.”
Just don’t try this at home.
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