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1.  Do Termites Avoid Carcasses? Behavioral Responses Depend on the Nature of the Carcasses 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(4):e36375.
Undertaking behavior is a significant adaptation to social life in enclosed nests. Workers are known to remove dead colony members from the nest. Such behavior prevents the spread of pathogens that may be detrimental to a colony. To date, little is known about the ethological aspects of how termites deal with carcasses.
Methodology and Principal Findings
In this study, we tested the responses to carcasses of four species from different subterranean termite taxa: Coptotermes formosanus Shiraki and Reticulitermes speratus (Kolbe) (lower termites) and Microcerotermes crassus Snyder and Globitermes sulphureus Haviland (higher termites). We also used different types of carcasses (freshly killed, 1-, 3-, and 7-day-old, and oven-killed carcasses) and mutilated nestmates to investigate whether the termites exhibited any behavioral responses that were specific to carcasses in certain conditions. Some behavioral responses were performed specifically on certain types of carcasses or mutilated termites. C. formosanus and R. speratus exhibited the following behaviors: (1) the frequency and time spent in antennating, grooming, and carcass removal of freshly killed, 1-day-old, and oven-killed carcasses were high, but these behaviors decreased as the carcasses aged; (2) the termites repeatedly crawled under the aging carcass piles; and (3) only newly dead termites were consumed as a food source. In contrast, M. crassus and G. sulphureus workers performed relatively few behavioral acts. Our results cast a new light on the previous notion that termites are necrophobic in nature.
We conclude that the behavioral response towards carcasses depends largely on the nature of the carcasses and termite species, and the response is more complex than was previously thought. Such behavioral responses likely are associated with the threat posed to the colony by the carcasses and the feeding habits and nesting ecology of a given species.
PMCID: PMC3338677  PMID: 22558452
2.  Caste- and development-associated gene expression in a lower termite 
Genome Biology  2003;4(10):R62.
Social insects such as termites express dramatic polyphenism (the occurrence of multiple forms in a species on the basis of differential gene expression) both in association with caste differentiation and between castes after differentiation. We have used cDNA macroarrays to compare gene expression between polyphenic castes and intermediary developmental stages of the termite Reticulitermes flavipes.
Social insects such as termites express dramatic polyphenism (the occurrence of multiple forms in a species on the basis of differential gene expression) both in association with caste differentiation and between castes after differentiation. We have used cDNA macroarrays to compare gene expression between polyphenic castes and intermediary developmental stages of the termite Reticulitermes flavipes.
We identified differentially expressed genes from nine ontogenic categories. Quantitative PCR was used to quantify precise differences in gene expression between castes and between intermediary developmental stages. We found worker and nymph-biased expression of transcripts encoding termite and endosymbiont cellulases; presoldier-biased expression of transcripts encoding the storage/hormone-binding protein vitellogenin; and soldier-biased expression of gene transcripts encoding two transcription/translation factors, two signal transduction factors and four cytoskeletal/muscle proteins. The two transcription/translation factors showed significant homology to the bicaudal and bric-a-brac developmental genes of Drosophila.
Our results show differential expression of regulatory, structural and enzyme-coding genes in association with termite castes and their developmental precursor stages. They also provide the first glimpse into how insect endosymbiont cellulase gene expression can vary in association with the caste of a host. These findings shed light on molecular processes associated with termite biology, polyphenism, caste differentiation and development and highlight potentially interesting variations in developmental themes between termites, other insects, and higher animals.
PMCID: PMC328451  PMID: 14519197
3.  Roles of Oxygen and the Intestinal Microflora in the Metabolism of Lignin-Derived Phenylpropanoids and Other Monoaromatic Compounds by Termites 
Prompted by our limited understanding of the degradation of lignin and lignin-derived aromatic metabolites in termites, we studied the metabolism of monoaromatic model compounds by termites and their gut microflora. Feeding trials performed with [ring-U-(sup14)C]benzoic acid and [ring-U-(sup14)C]cinnamic acid revealed the general ability of termites of the major feeding guilds (wood and soil feeders and fungus cultivators) to mineralize the aromatic nucleus. Up to 70% of the radioactive label was released as (sup14)CO(inf2); the remainder was more or less equally distributed among termite bodies, gut contents, and feces. Gut homogenates of the wood-feeding termites Nasutitermes lujae (Wasmann) and Reticulitermes flavipes (Kollar) mineralized ring-labeled benzoic or cinnamic acid only if oxygen was present. In the absence of oxygen, benzoate was not attacked, and cinnamate was only reduced to phenylpropionate. Similar results were obtained with other, nonlabeled lignin-related phenylpropanoids (ferulic, 3,4-dihydroxycinnamic, and 4-hydroxycinnamic acids), whose ring moieties underwent degradation only if oxygen was present. Under anoxic conditions, the substrates were merely modified (by side chain reduction and demethylation), and this modification occurred at the same time as a net accumulation of phenylpropanoids formed endogenously in the gut homogenate, a phenomenon not observed under oxic conditions. Enumeration by the most-probable-number technique revealed that each N. lujae gut contained about 10(sup5) bacteria that were capable of completely mineralizing aromatic substrates in the presence of oxygen (about 10(sup8) bacteria per ml). In the absence of oxygen, small numbers of ring-modifying microorganisms were found (<50 bacteria per gut), but none of these microorganisms were capable of ring cleavage. Similar results were obtained with gut homogenates of R. flavipes, except that a larger number of anaerobic ring-modifying microorganisms was present (>5 x 10(sup3) bacteria per gut). Neither inclusion of potential cosubstrates (H(inf2), pyruvate, lactate) nor inclusion of hydrogenotrophic partner organisms resulted in anoxic ring cleavage in most-probable-number tubes prepared with gut homogenates of either termite. The oxygen dependence of aromatic ring cleavage by the termite gut microbiota is consistent with the presence, and uptake by microbes, of O(inf2) in the peripheral region of otherwise anoxic gut lumina (as reported in the accompanying paper [A. Brune, D. Emerson, and J. A. Breznak, Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 61:2681-2687, 1995]). Taken together, our results indicate that microbial degradation of plant aromatic compounds can occur in termite guts and may contribute to the carbon and energy requirement of the host.
PMCID: PMC1388495  PMID: 16535077
4.  Asexual queen succession in the subterranean termite Reticulitermes virginicus 
Termite colonies are founded by a pair of primary reproductives. In many species, including subterranean termites (family Rhinotermitidae), the primary king and queen can be succeeded by neotenic reproductives that are produced from workers or nymphs within the colony. It is generally believed that these neotenics inbreed within the colony, sometimes for many generations. Here, we show that primary queens of the North American subterranean termite, Reticulitermes virginicus, are replaced by numerous parthenogenetically produced female neotenics. We collected functional female neotenics from five colonies of R. virginicus in North Carolina and Texas, USA. Genetic analysis at eight microsatellite loci showed that 91–100% of the neotenics present within a colony were homozygous at all loci, indicating that they were produced through automictic parthenogenesis with terminal fusion. In contrast, workers, soldiers and alates were almost exclusively sexually produced by mating between the female neotenics and a single king. This is the second termite species shown to undergo asexual queen succession, a system first described in the Japanese species, Reticulitermes speratus. Thus, the conditional use of sexual and asexual reproduction to produce members of different castes may be widespread within Reticulitermes and possibly other subterranean termites.
PMCID: PMC3248721  PMID: 21831899
parthenogenesis; inbreeding; caste differentiation; microsatellite; breeding system
5.  The Antibacterial Protein Lysozyme Identified as the Termite Egg Recognition Pheromone 
PLoS ONE  2007;2(8):e813.
Social insects rely heavily on pheromone communication to maintain their sociality. Egg protection is one of the most fundamental social behaviours in social insects. The recent discovery of the termite-egg mimicking fungus ‘termite-ball’ and subsequent studies on termite egg protection behaviour have shown that termites can be manipulated by using the termite egg recognition pheromone (TERP), which strongly evokes the egg-carrying and -grooming behaviours of workers. Despite the great scientific and economic importance, TERP has not been identified because of practical difficulties. Herein we identified the antibacterial protein lysozyme as the TERP. We isolated the target protein using ion-exchange and hydrophobic interaction chromatography, and the MALDI-TOF MS analysis showed a molecular size of 14.5 kDa. We found that the TERP provided antibacterial activity against a gram-positive bacterium. Among the currently known antimicrobial proteins, the molecular size of 14.5 kDa limits the target to lysozyme. Termite lysozymes obtained from eggs and salivary glands, and even hen egg lysozyme, showed a strong termite egg recognition activity. Besides eggs themselves, workers also supply lysozyme to eggs through frequent egg-grooming, by which egg surfaces are coated with saliva containing lysozyme. Reverse transcript PCR analysis showed that mRNA of termite lysozyme was expressed in both salivary glands and eggs. Western blot analysis confirmed that lysozyme production begins in immature eggs in queen ovaries. This is the first identification of proteinaceous pheromone in social insects. Researchers have focused almost exclusively on hydrocarbons when searching for recognition pheromones in social insects. The present finding of a proteinaceous pheromone represents a major step forward in, and result in the broadening of, the search for recognition pheromones. This novel function of lysozyme as a termite pheromone illuminates the profound influence of pathogenic microbes on the evolution of social behaviour in termites.
PMCID: PMC1950569  PMID: 17726543
6.  Parallel metatranscriptome analyses of host and symbiont gene expression in the gut of the termite Reticulitermes flavipes 
Termite lignocellulose digestion is achieved through a collaboration of host plus prokaryotic and eukaryotic symbionts. In the present work, we took a combined host and symbiont metatranscriptomic approach for investigating the digestive contributions of host and symbiont in the lower termite Reticulitermes flavipes. Our approach consisted of parallel high-throughput sequencing from (i) a host gut cDNA library and (ii) a hindgut symbiont cDNA library. Subsequently, we undertook functional analyses of newly identified phenoloxidases with potential importance as pretreatment enzymes in industrial lignocellulose processing.
Over 10,000 expressed sequence tags (ESTs) were sequenced from the 2 libraries that aligned into 6,555 putative transcripts, including 171 putative lignocellulase genes. Sequence analyses provided insights in two areas. First, a non-overlapping complement of host and symbiont (prokaryotic plus protist) glycohydrolase gene families known to participate in cellulose, hemicellulose, alpha carbohydrate, and chitin degradation were identified. Of these, cellulases are contributed by host plus symbiont genomes, whereas hemicellulases are contributed exclusively by symbiont genomes. Second, a diverse complement of previously unknown genes that encode proteins with homology to lignase, antioxidant, and detoxification enzymes were identified exclusively from the host library (laccase, catalase, peroxidase, superoxide dismutase, carboxylesterase, cytochrome P450). Subsequently, functional analyses of phenoloxidase activity provided results that were strongly consistent with patterns of laccase gene expression. In particular, phenoloxidase activity and laccase gene expression are mostly restricted to symbiont-free foregut plus salivary gland tissues, and phenoloxidase activity is inducible by lignin feeding.
To our knowledge, this is the first time that a dual host-symbiont transcriptome sequencing effort has been conducted in a single termite species. This sequence database represents an important new genomic resource for use in further studies of collaborative host-symbiont termite digestion, as well as development of coevolved host and symbiont-derived biocatalysts for use in industrial biomass-to-bioethanol applications. Additionally, this study demonstrates that: (i) phenoloxidase activities are prominent in the R. flavipes gut and are not symbiont derived, (ii) expands the known number of host and symbiont glycosyl hydrolase families in Reticulitermes, and (iii) supports previous models of lignin degradation and host-symbiont collaboration in cellulose/hemicellulose digestion in the termite gut. All sequences in this paper are available publicly with the accession numbers FL634956-FL640828 (Termite Gut library) and FL641015-FL645753 (Symbiont library).
PMCID: PMC2768689  PMID: 19832970
7.  Disruption of the Termite Gut Microbiota and Its Prolonged Consequences for Fitness ▿ †  
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2011;77(13):4303-4312.
The disruption of host-symbiont interactions through the use of antibiotics can help elucidate microbial functions that go beyond short-term nutritional value. Termite gut symbionts have been studied extensively, but little is known about their impact on the termite's reproductive output. Here we describe the effect that the antibiotic rifampin has not only on the gut microbial diversity but also on the longevity, fecundity, and weight of two termite species, Zootermopsis angusticollis and Reticulitermes flavipes. We report three key findings: (i) the antibiotic rifampin, when fed to primary reproductives during the incipient stages of colony foundation, causes a permanent reduction in the diversity of gut bacteria and a transitory effect on the density of the protozoan community; (ii) rifampin treatment reduces oviposition rates of queens, translating into delayed colony growth and ultimately reduced colony fitness; and (iii) the initial dosages of rifampin had severe long-term fitness effects on Z. angusticollis. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that the antibiotic-induced perturbation of the microbial community is associated with prolonged reductions in longevity and fecundity. A causal relationship between these changes in the gut microbial population structures and fitness is suggested by the acquisition of opportunistic pathogens and incompetence of the termites to restore a pretreatment, native microbiota. Our results indicate that antibiotic treatment significantly alters the termite's microbiota, reproduction, colony establishment, and ultimately colony growth and development. We discuss the implications for antimicrobials as a new application to the control of termite pest species.
PMCID: PMC3127728  PMID: 21571887
8.  Cellulolytic Protist Numbers Rise and Fall Dramatically in Termite Queens and Kings during Colony Foundation 
Eukaryotic Cell  2013;12(4):545-550.
Among the best-known examples of mutualistic symbioses is that between lower termites and the cellulolytic flagellate protists in their hindguts. Although the symbiosis in worker termites has attracted much attention, there have been only a few studies of protists in other castes. We have performed the first examination of protist population dynamics in queens and kings during termite colony foundation. Protist numbers, as well as measurements of hindgut and reproductive tissue sizes, were undertaken at five time points over 400 days in incipient colonies of Reticulitermes speratus, as well as in other castes of mature colonies of this species. We found that protist numbers increased dramatically in both queens and kings during the first 50 days of colony foundation but began to decrease by day 100, eventually disappearing by day 400. Hindgut width followed a pattern similar to that of protist numbers, while ovary and testis widths increased significantly only at day 400. Kings were found to contain higher numbers of protists than queens in incipient colonies, which may be linked to higher levels of nutrient transfer from kings to queens than vice versa, as is known in some other termite species. Protists were found to be abundant in soldiers from mature colonies but absent in neotenics. This probably reflects feeding of soldiers by workers via proctodeal trophallaxis and of reproductives via stomodeal trophallaxis. The results reveal the dynamic nature of protist numbers during colony foundation and highlight the trade-offs that exist between reproduction and parental care during this critical phase of the termite life cycle.
PMCID: PMC3623431  PMID: 23376945
9.  Intra- and Interspecific Comparisons of Bacterial Diversity and Community Structure Support Coevolution of Gut Microbiota and Termite Host†  
Applied and Environmental Microbiology  2005;71(11):6590-6599.
We investigated the bacterial gut microbiota from 32 colonies of wood-feeding termites, comprising four Microcerotermes species (Termitidae) and four Reticulitermes species (Rhinotermitidae), using terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis and clonal analysis of 16S rRNA. The obtained molecular community profiles were compared statistically between individuals, colonies, locations, and species of termites. Both analyses revealed that the bacterial community structure was remarkably similar within each termite genus, with small but significant differences between sampling sites and/or termite species. In contrast, considerable differences were found between the two termite genera. Only one bacterial phylotype (defined with 97% sequence identity) was shared between the two termite genera, while 18% and 50% of the phylotypes were shared between two congeneric species in the genera Microcerotermes and Reticulitermes, respectively. Nevertheless, a phylogenetic analysis of 228 phylotypes from Microcerotermes spp. and 367 phylotypes from Reticulitermes spp. with other termite gut clones available in public databases demonstrated the monophyly of many phylotypes from distantly related termites. The monophyletic “termite clusters” comprised of phylotypes from more than one termite species were distributed among 15 bacterial phyla, including the novel candidate phyla TG2 and TG3. These termite clusters accounted for 95% of the 960 clones analyzed in this study. Moreover, the clusters in 12 phyla comprised phylotypes from more than one termite (sub)family, accounting for 75% of the analyzed clones. Our results suggest that the majority of gut bacteria are not allochthonous but are specific symbionts that have coevolved with termites and that their community structure is basically consistent within a genus of termites.
PMCID: PMC1287746  PMID: 16269686
10.  Multiple Levels of Synergistic Collaboration in Termite Lignocellulose Digestion 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(7):e21709.
In addition to evolving eusocial lifestyles, two equally fascinating aspects of termite biology are their mutualistic relationships with gut symbionts and their use of lignocellulose as a primary nutrition source. Termites are also considered excellent model systems for studying the production of bioethanol and renewable bioenergy from 2nd generation (non-food) feedstocks. While the idea that gut symbionts are the sole contributors to termite lignocellulose digestion has remained popular and compelling, in recent years host contributions to the digestion process have become increasingly apparent. However, the degree to which host and symbiont, and host enzymes, collaborate in lignocellulose digestion remain poorly understood. Also, how digestive enzymes specifically collaborate (i.e., in additive or synergistic ways) is largely unknown. In the present study we undertook translational-genomic studies to gain unprecedented insights into digestion by the lower termite Reticulitermes flavipes and its symbiotic gut flora. We used a combination of native gut tissue preparations and recombinant enzymes derived from the host gut transcriptome to identify synergistic collaborations between host and symbiont, and also among enzymes produced exclusively by the host termite. Our findings provide important new evidence of synergistic collaboration among enzymes in the release of fermentable monosaccharides from wood lignocellulose. These monosaccharides (glucose and pentoses) are highly relevant to 2nd-generation bioethanol production. We also show that, although significant digestion capabilities occur in host termite tissues, catalytic tradeoffs exist that apparently favor mutualism with symbiotic lignocellulose-digesting microbes. These findings contribute important new insights towards the development of termite-derived biofuel processing biotechnologies and shed new light on selective forces that likely favored symbiosis and, subsequently, group living in primitive termites and their cockroach ancestors.
PMCID: PMC3128603  PMID: 21747950
11.  “Endomicrobia”: Cytoplasmic Symbionts of Termite Gut Protozoa Form a Separate Phylum of Prokaryotes 
Lignocellulose digestion by wood-feeding termites depends on the mutualistic interaction of unusual, flagellate protists located in their hindgut. Most of the flagellates harbor numerous prokaryotic endosymbionts of so-far-unknown identity and function. Using a full-cycle molecular approach, we show here that the endosymbionts of the larger gut flagellates of Reticulitermes santonensis belong to the so-called termite group 1 (TG-1) bacteria, a group of clones previously obtained exclusively from gut homogenates of Reticulitermes speratus that are only distantly related to other bacteria and are considered a novel bacterial phylum based on their 16S rRNA gene sequences. Fluorescence in situ hybridization with specifically designed oligonucleotide probes confirmed that TG-1 bacteria are indeed located within the flagellate cells and demonstrated that Trichonympha agilis (Hypermastigida) and Pyrsonympha vertens (Oxymonadida) harbor phylogenetically distinct populations of symbionts (<95% sequence similarity). Transmission electron microscopy revealed that the symbionts are small, spindle-shaped cells (0.6 μm in length and 0.3 μm in diameter) surrounded by two membranes and located within the cytoplasm of their hosts. The symbionts of the two flagellates are described as candidate species in the candidate genus “Endomicrobium.” Moreover, we provide evidence that the members of the TG-1 phylum, for which we propose the candidate name “Endomicrobia,” are phylogenetically extremely diverse and are present in and also restricted to the guts of all lower termites and wood-feeding cockroaches of the genus Cryptocercus, the only insects that are in an exclusive, obligately mutualistic association with such unique cellulose-fermenting protists.
PMCID: PMC1065190  PMID: 15746350
12.  Disease Resistance in the Drywood Termite, Incisitermes schwarzi: Does Nesting Ecology Affect Immunocompetence? 
Termites live in nests that can differ in microbial load and thus vary in degree of disease risk. It was hypothesized that termite investment in immune response would differ in species living in nest environments that vary in the richness and abundance of microbes. Using the drywood termite, Incisitermes schwarzi Banks (Isoptera: Kalotermitidae), as a model for species having low nest and cuticular microbial loads, the susceptibility of individuals and groups to conidia of the entomopathogenic fungus, Metarhizium anisopliae Sorokin (Hypocreales: Clavicipitaceae), was examined. The survivorship of I. schwarzi was compared to that of the dampwood termite, Zootermopsis angusticollis Hagen (Termopsidae), a species with comparatively high microbial loads. The results indicated that I. schwarzi derives similar benefits from group living as Z. angusticollis: isolated termites had 5.5 times the hazard ratio of death relative to termites nesting in groups of 25 while termites in groups of 10 did not differ significantly from the groups of 25. The results also indicated, after controlling for the influence of group size and conidia exposure on survivorship, that Z. angusticollis was significantly more susceptible to fungal infection than I. schwarzi, the former having 1.6 times the hazard ratio of death relative to drywood termites. Thus, disease susceptibility and individual investment in immunocompetence may not be dependent on interspecific variation in microbial pressures. The data validate prior studies indicating that sociality has benefits in infection control and suggest that social mechanisms of disease resistance, rather than individual physiological and immunological adaptations, may have been the principle target of selection related to variation in infection risk from microbes in the nest environment of different termite species.
PMCID: PMC3014820  PMID: 20572790
ecological immunology; entomopathogenic fungus; herd immunity; infection control; microbial load
13.  A Constraint Condition for Foraging Strategy in Subterranean Termites 
Previous studies have explored the relationship between termite branch tunnel geometry and foraging efficiency in a model simulation in which foraging efficiency, γ, for two termite species, Coptotermes formosanus Shiraki and Reticulitermes flavipes (Kollar) (Isoptera: Rhinotermitidae), was investigated in response to two variables, the probability of tunnel branching (Pbranch) and the probability of tunnel branch termination (Pterm). It was found that simulated tunnel patterns based on empirical data did not have maximum foraging efficiency. We hypothesized that termites could increase their foraging efficiency in response to landscape heterogeneity. The present study investigated how termites could control the two variables, Pbranch and Pterm, in response to the external environment in terms of tunnel network connectivity. It was found that the best simulated strategy for C. formosanus and R. flavipes termites would occur if both Pbranch and Pterm were increased together. This study provides possible mechanisms for foraging strategies in subterranean termites and a baseline for future empirical work.
PMCID: PMC3016880  PMID: 21070178
Subterranean termite; foraging efficiency; network connectivity; foraging strategy
14.  In situ morphology of the gut microbiota of wood-eating termites [Reticulitermes flavipes (Kollar) and Coptotermes formosanus Shiraki]. 
Light microscopy and scanning and transmission electron microscopy were used to examine the in situ morphology of the gut microbiota of Reticulitermes flavipes and Caoptotermes formosanus. Laboratory-maintained termites were used and, for R. flavipes, specimens were also prepared immediately after collection from a natural infestation. The latter endeavor enabled a study of different castes and developmental stages of R. flavipes and revealed differences in the microbiota of field versus laboratory specimens. The termite paunch microbiota consisted of an abundance of morphologically diverse bacteria and protozoa. Thirteen bacterial morphotypes in the paunch were described in detail: seven were observed only in R. flavipes, three were observed only in C. formosanus, and three were common to both termite species. The paunch epithelium was densely colonized by bacteria, many of which possessed holdfast elements that secured them tightly to this tissue and to other bacterial cells. Besides bacteria, the protozoan Pyrsonympha vertens adhered to the paunch epithelium of R. flavipes by means of an attachment organelle. Cuplike indentations were present on the paunch epithelial surface and were sites of bacterial aggregation. Ultrastructural features of cups suggested their involvement in ion absorption. In addition to the paunch, the midgut was also colonized by bacteria that were situated between epithelial microvilli. Results suggest that bacteria are an integral part of the gut ecosystem.
PMCID: PMC170698  PMID: 848959
15.  Diversity of Nitrogen Fixation Genes in the Symbiotic Intestinal Microflora of the Termite Reticulitermes speratus 
The diversity of nitrogen-fixing organisms in the symbiotic intestinal microflora of a lower termite, Reticulitermes speratus, was investigated without culturing the resident microorganisms. Fragments of the nifH gene, which encodes the dinitrogenase reductase, were directly amplified from the DNA of the mixed microbial population in the termite gut and were clonally isolated. The phylogenetic analysis of the nifH product amino acid sequences showed that there was a remarkable diversity of nitrogenase genes in the termite gut. A large number of the termite nifH sequences were most closely related to those of a firmicute, Clostridium pasteurianum, with a few being most closely related to either the (gamma) subclass of the proteobacteria or a sequence of Desulfovibrio gigas. Some of the others were distantly related to those of the bacteria and were seemingly derived from the domain Archaea. The phylogenetic positions of these nifH sequences corresponded to those of genera found during a previous determination of rRNA-based phylogeny of the termite intestinal microbial community, of which a majority consisted of new, yet-uncultivated species. The results revealed that we have little knowledge of the organisms responsible for nitrogen fixation in termites.
PMCID: PMC1388910  PMID: 16535372
16.  Differential impacts of juvenile hormone, soldier head extract and alternate caste phenotypes on host and symbiont transcriptome composition in the gut of the termite Reticulitermes flavipes 
BMC Genomics  2013;14:491.
Termites are highly eusocial insects and show a division of labor whereby morphologically distinct individuals specialize in distinct tasks. In the lower termite Reticulitermes flavipes (Rhinotermitidae), non-reproducing individuals form the worker and soldier castes, which specialize in helping (e.g., brood care, cleaning, foraging) and defense behaviors, respectively. Workers are totipotent juveniles that can either undergo status quo molts or develop into soldiers or neotenic reproductives. This caste differentiation can be regulated by juvenile hormone (JH) and primer pheromones contained in soldier head extracts (SHE). Here we offered worker termites a cellulose diet treated with JH or SHE for 24-hr, or held them with live soldiers (LS) or live neotenic reproductives (LR). We then determined gene expression profiles of the host termite gut and protozoan symbionts concurrently using custom cDNA oligo-microarrays containing 10,990 individual ESTs.
JH was the most influential treatment (501 total ESTs affected), followed by LS (24 ESTs), LR (12 ESTs) and SHE treatments (6 ESTs). The majority of JH up- and downregulated ESTs were of host and symbiont origin, respectively; in contrast, SHE, LR and LS treatments had more uniform impacts on host and symbiont gene expression. Repeat “follow-up” bioassays investigating combined JH + SHE impacts in relation to individual JH and SHE treatments on a subset of array-positive genes revealed (i) JH and SHE treatments had opposite impacts on gene expression and (ii) JH + SHE impacts on gene expression were generally intermediate between JH and SHE.
Our results show that JH impacts hundreds of termite and symbiont genes within 24-hr, strongly suggesting a role for the termite gut in JH-dependent caste determination. Additionally, differential impacts of SHE and LS treatments were observed that are in strong agreement with previous studies that specifically investigated soldier caste regulation. However, it is likely that gene expression outside the gut may be of equal or greater importance than gut gene expression.
PMCID: PMC3731027  PMID: 23870282
Metagenomics; Soldier head extract; Microarray; Caste differentiation; Live soldier; Live reproductive
17.  Termites eavesdrop to avoid competitors 
Competition exclusion, when a single species dominates resources due to superior competitiveness, is seldom observed in nature. Termites compete for resources with deadly consequences, yet more than one species can be found feeding in the same wooden resource. This is especially surprising when drywood species, with colonies of a few hundred, are found cohabiting with subterranean species, with colonies of millions. Termites communicate vibro-acoustically and, as these signals can travel over long distances, they are vulnerable to eavesdropping. We investigated whether drywood termites could eavesdrop on vibration cues from subterranean species. We show, using choice experiments and recordings, that the drywood termite Cryptotermes secundus can distinguish its own species from the dominant competitor in the environment, the subterranean termite Coptotermes acinaciformis. The drywood termite was attracted to its own vibration cues, but was repelled by those of the subterranean species. This response increased with decreasing wood size, corresponding with both increased risk and strength of the cue. The drywood termites appear to avoid confrontation by eavesdropping on the subterranean termites; these results provide further evidence that vibro-acoustic cues are important for termite sensory perception and communication.
PMCID: PMC2825779  PMID: 19710058
aggression; competition; communication; eavesdropping; Isoptera; social information
18.  Differential undertaking response of a lower termite to congeneric and conspecific corpses 
Scientific Reports  2013;3:1650.
Undertaking behaviour is an essential activity in social insects. Corpses are often recognized by a postmortem change in a chemical signature. Reticulitermes flavipes responded to corpses within minutes of death. This undertaking behaviour did not change with longer postmortem time (24 h); however, R. flavipes exhibited distinctively different behaviours toward dead termites from various origins. Corpses of the congeneric species, Reticulitermes virginicus, were buried onsite by workers with a large group of soldiers guarding the burial site due to the risk of interspecific competition; while dead conspecifics, regardless of colony origin, were pulled back into the holding chamber for nutrient recycling and hygienic purposes. The burial task associated with congeneric corpses was coupled with colony defence and involved ten times more termites than retrieval of conspecific corpses. Our findings suggest elicitation of undertaking behaviour depends on the origin of corpses which is associated with different types of risk.
PMCID: PMC3629736  PMID: 23598990
19.  A Novel Strain of Steinernema riobrave (Rhabditida: Steinernematidae) Possesses Superior Virulence to Subterranean Termites (Isoptera: Rhinotermitidae) 
Journal of Nematology  2010;42(2):91-95.
Subterranean termites are major global pests of wood structures and wood products. Among the most economically important subterranean termite species in the US are Heterotermes aureus, Reticulitermes flavipes, and Coptotermes formosanus. In prior studies, the entomopathogenic nematode, Steinernema riobrave strain 355, exhibited a high level of virulence to H. aureus compared with other nematode species. However, S. riobrave 355 was reported to be poorly or only moderately virulent to R. flavipes and C. formosanus, respectively. We hypothesized that other strains of S. riobrave may possess a high level of virulence to all three termite species. Under laboratory conditions we compared three novel strains of S. riobrave (3-8b, 7-12, and TP) with the 355 strain for virulence to H. aureus, R. flavipes, and C. formosanus workers. H. aureus was very susceptible to all the S. riobrave strains, and termites in all nematode treatments were dead after 4 d. The TP strain of S. riobrave caused greater mortality in R. flavipes and C. formosanus compared to the other nematode strains. Specifically, the TP strain caused 75% and 91% mortality in R. flavipes and C. formosanus, respectively, which was more than 300% and 70% higher than the mortality caused by other strains. Additional studies are warranted to determine the ability of S. riobrave (TP) to control the targeted termite species under field conditions.
PMCID: PMC3380470  PMID: 22736844
Coptotermes formosanus; entomopathogenic nematode; Heterotermes aureus; Reticulitermes flavipes; Steinernema riobrave; termite; biological control
20.  Vertical transmission as the key to the colonization of Madagascar by fungus-growing termites? 
The mutualism between fungus-growing termites (Macrotermitinae) and their mutualistic fungi (Termitomyces) began in Africa. The fungus-growing termites have secondarily colonized Madagascar and only a subset of the genera found in Africa is found on this isolated island. Successful long-distance colonization may have been severely constrained by the obligate interaction of the termites with fungal symbionts and the need to acquire these symbionts secondarily from the environment for most species (horizontal symbiont transmission). Consistent with this hypothesis, we show that all extant species of fungus-growing termites of Madagascar are the result of a single colonization event of termites belonging to one of the only two groups with vertical symbiont transmission, and we date this event at approximately 13 Mya (Middle/Upper Miocene). Vertical symbiont transmission may therefore have facilitated long-distance dispersal since both partners disperse together. In contrast to their termite hosts, the fungal symbionts have colonized Madagascar multiple times, suggesting that the presence of fungus-growing termites may have facilitated secondary colonizations of the symbiont. Our findings indicate that the absence of the right symbionts in a new environment can prevent long-distance dispersal of symbioses relying on horizontal symbiont acquisition.
PMCID: PMC2842641  PMID: 19828546
symbiont transmission mode; long-distance dispersal; mutualism; Microtermes; Termitomyces
21.  Genomic and Physiological Characterization of the Verrucomicrobia Isolate Diplosphaera colitermitum gen. nov., sp. nov., Reveals Microaerophily and Nitrogen Fixation Genes 
Previously we reported the cultivation of novel verrucomicrobia, including strain TAV2 (93% 16S rRNA gene identity to its nearest cultivated representative, Opitutus terreae PB90-1) from the gut of the termite Reticulitermes flavipes. To gain better insight into the Verrucomicrobia as a whole and understand the role of verrucomicrobia within the termite gut ecosystem, we analyzed a draft genome and undertook a physiological characterization of TAV2. Strain TAV2 is an autochthonous member of the R. flavipes gut microbiota and groups phylogenetically among diverse Verrucomicrobia from R. flavipes and other termites that are represented by 16S rRNA gene sequences alone. TAV2 is a microaerophile, possessing a high-affinity cbb3-type terminal oxidase-encoding gene and exhibiting an optimum growth rate between 2 and 8% (vol/vol) oxygen. It has the genetic potential to degrade cellulose, an important function within termite guts, but its in vitro substrate utilization spectrum was limited to starch and a few mono- and disaccharides. Growth occurred on nitrogen-free medium, and genomic screening revealed genes for dinitrogenases, heretofore detected in only a few members of the Verrucomicrobia. This represents the first (i) characterization of a verrucomicrobial species from the termite gut, (ii) report of nif and anf genes in a nonacidophilic verrucomicrobial species, and (iii) description of a microaerophilic genotype and phenotype in this phylum of bacteria. The genetic and physiological distinctiveness of TAV2 supports its recognition as the type strain of a new genus and species, for which the name Diplosphaera colitermitum gen. nov., sp. nov., is proposed.
PMCID: PMC3294482  PMID: 22194293
22.  Evidence for Cascades of Perturbation and Adaptation in the Metabolic Genes of Higher Termite Gut Symbionts 
mBio  2012;3(4):e00223-12.
Termites and their gut microbes engage in fascinating dietary mutualisms. Less is known about how these complex symbioses have evolved after first emerging in an insect ancestor over 120 million years ago. Here we examined a bacterial gene, formate dehydrogenase (fdhF), that is key to the mutualism in 8 species of “higher” termite (members of the Termitidae, the youngest and most biomass-abundant and species-rich termite family). Patterns of fdhF diversity in the gut communities of higher termites contrasted strongly with patterns in less-derived (more-primitive) insect relatives (wood-feeding “lower” termites and roaches). We observed phylogenetic evidence for (i) the sweeping loss of several clades of fdhF that may reflect extinctions of symbiotic protozoa and, importantly, bacteria dependent on them in the last common ancestor of all higher termites and (ii) a radiation of genes from the (possibly) single allele that survived. Sweeping gene loss also resulted in (iii) the elimination of an entire clade of genes encoding selenium (Se)-independent enzymes from higher termite gut communities, perhaps reflecting behavioral or morphological innovations in higher termites that relaxed preexisting environmental limitations of Se, a dietary trace element. Curiously, several higher termite gut communities may have subsequently reencountered Se limitation, reinventing genes for Se-independent proteins via convergent evolution. Lastly, the presence of a novel fdhF lineage within litter-feeding and subterranean higher (but not other) termites may indicate recent gene “invasion” events. These results imply that cascades of perturbation and adaptation by distinct evolutionary mechanisms have impacted the evolution of complex microbial communities in a highly successful lineage of insects.
Since patterns of relatedness between termite hosts are broadly mirrored by the relatedness of their symbiotic gut microbiota, coevolution between hosts and gut symbionts is rightly considered an important force that has shaped dietary mutualism since its inception over 120 million years ago. Apart from that concerning lateral gene or symbiont transfer between termite gut communities (for which no evidence yet exists), there has been little discussion of alternative mechanisms impacting the evolution of mutualism. Here we provide strong gene-based evidence for past environmental perturbations creating significant upheavals that continue to reverberate throughout the gut communities of species comprising a single termite lineage. We suggest that symbiont extinction events, sweeping gene losses, evolutionary radiations, relaxation and reemergence of key nutritional pressures, convergent evolution of similar traits, and recent gene invasions have all shaped gene composition in the symbiotic gut microbial communities of higher termites, currently the most dominant and successful termite family on Earth.
PMCID: PMC3428693  PMID: 22911968
23.  Fungistatic Activity of Freshly Killed Termite, Nasutitermes acajutlae, Soldiers in the Caribbean 
Termites may have high exposure to both pathogenic and competitive fungal species. Previous studies have shown anti-fungal properties of the primary components (α-pinene and limonene) of Nasutitermes frontal glands that are present on soldiers. In this study, the termite Nasutitermes acajutlae (Isoptera: Termitidae) was used to examine if the growth of naturally occurring fungi was inhibited by soldiers, as compared to workers that do not have frontal glands. Soldiers and workers were killed, surface sterilized, and placed on nutrient agar either singly or in combinations with other termites. Time until appearance of fungus and growth of visible fungal colonies was determined. Fungus appeared significantly earlier in cultures with single workers than with single soldiers (P < 0.001). Once fungus appeared, there were no significant differences in growth rate. When worker and/or soldier fluids were combined in one culture, fungal growth appeared later in cultures containing soldiers; growth was significantly slower in colonies with 5 workers and 5 soldiers than in cultures with 5 workers alone; P < 0.001. Finally, growth appeared later in cultures with 5 soldiers than in cultures with one soldier, suggesting a dose-response. Fungi that grew from termites were mostly non-pathogenic, suggesting the anti-fungal properties of soldiers may inhibit both pathogens and competitors.
PMCID: PMC2999423  PMID: 20307241
Termite; parasitism; competition
24.  Defining host-symbiont collaboration in termite lignocellulose digestion 
Termites have the unique ability to exploit lignocellulose as a primary nutrition source. Traditionally, termite lignocellulose digestion has been considered as a gut-symbiont-mediated process; however, in recent years the importance of host digestive capabilities have become apparent. Despite this growing understanding, how digestive enzymes from different origins specifically collaborate (i.e., additively or synergistically) has remained largely unknown. In a recent study, we undertook translational-genomic studies to address these questions in the lower termite Reticulitermes flavipes (Isoptera: Rhinotermitidae) and its symbiotic gut fauna. We used a combination of native gut tissue preparations and recombinant enzymes derived from the host gut transcriptome to identify synergistic collaborations between host and symbiont, and also among enzymes produced exclusively by the host termite. These findings provided important new evidence of synergistic collaboration among enzymes in the release of fermentable monosaccharides from wood lignocellulose, and laid a foundation for future integrative studies into termite digestion, symbiosis and eusociality.
PMCID: PMC3306353  PMID: 22446549
termite; lignocellulose; cellulose; laccase; symbiosis; microbiome; end-product inhibition; functional genomics
25.  When Subterranean Termites Challenge the Rules of Fungal Epizootics 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(3):e34484.
Over the past 50 years, repeated attempts have been made to develop biological control technologies for use against economically important species of subterranean termites, focusing primarily on the use of the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae. However, no successful field implementation of biological control has been reported. Most previous work has been conducted under the assumption that environmental conditions within termite nests would favor the growth and dispersion of entomopathogenic agents, resulting in an epizootic. Epizootics rely on the ability of the pathogenic microorganism to self-replicate and disperse among the host population. However, our study shows that due to multilevel disease resistance mechanisms, the incidence of an epizootic within a group of termites is unlikely. By exposing groups of 50 termites in planar arenas containing sand particles treated with a range of densities of an entomopathogenic fungus, we were able to quantify behavioral patterns as a function of the death ratios resulting from the fungal exposure. The inability of the fungal pathogen M. anisopliae to complete its life cycle within a Coptotermes formosanus (Isoptera: Rhinotermitidae) group was mainly the result of cannibalism and the burial behavior of the nest mates, even when termite mortality reached up to 75%. Because a subterranean termite colony, as a superorganism, can prevent epizootics of M. anisopliae, the traditional concepts of epizootiology may not apply to this social insect when exposed to fungal pathogens, or other pathogen for which termites have evolved behavioral and physiological means of disrupting their life cycle.
PMCID: PMC3314638  PMID: 22470575

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