Realtors and homeowners cringe at the thought of termites on their properties, but for bioenergy researchers, these insects are rich harbors of microbial communities that can break down woody lignocellulose. In 2007, the DOE Joint Genome Institute sequenced the microbes in the hindgut of termites from Costa Rica (from the Nasutitermes genus) to identify the genes and enzymes involved in the process of breaking down plant biomass, providing the insects with their required nutrients.
The comparative analysis used termites of the genus Nasutitermes (above) and Amitermes.
(Image courtesy of DOE JGI)
Following up on this project several years later, a team involving DOE JGI researchers wanted to find out how the phrase “you are what you eat” might be applied to a termite’s dietary lifestyle in influencing the composition of the microbial community in its gut.
In a paper published April 12, 2013 in PLoS ONE, the researchers conducted a comparative analysis between the microbial communities found in the hindguts of a termite that feeds on cow dung (Amitermes wheeleri) and a termite raised on dry wood in a lab colony (Nasutitermes corniger). These two samples were then compared against the 2006 termite hindgut sequence from the Costa Rican samples.
The team found that while microbes in both communities were capable of core functions such as breaking down lignocellulose, there were also striking differences that could be attributed to their dietary habits. They also reported that the termite hindgut communities “exhibited higher similarities to each other than to other lignocellulose-degrading systems [previously sequenced at the DOE JGI], including a compost adapted to switchgrass, tammar wallaby foregut, wild panda gut and cowrumen.”