Genome reveals greener ways to kill termites

"There's a lot of social strife in a termite colony, and it's got to stay cohesive to survive," says Michael Scharf. "Chemical communication is crucial to keeping the labor force in place." (Credit: antisense/Flickr)

Scientists have sequenced the genome of the Nevada dampwood termite and the results offer clues to how the social insects communicate aggression or desire.

The findings may help develop pest control strategies that are more specific and less toxic than the broad-spectrum chemicals conventionally used to treat termite infestations, researchers say.


“The termite genome reveals many unique genetic targets that can be disrupted for better termite control,” says Michael Scharf, professor of entomology at Purdue University.

“Depending on which gene or protein that is targeted, we could disrupt termites’ neurological processes, molting, digestive factors, or cuticle formation. We’re just limited by our imagination.”

The Nevada dampwood termite is the first termite species to have its genome sequenced. While dampwood termites don’t cause significant damage to buildings, they are closely related to key pests such as the eastern subterranean termite, which is the main pest species in Indiana and the Eastern US.

Termites are major pests of human structures, costing an estimated $40 billion in damage and control treatment each year. Having the genome in hand will allow researchers to look for common features expressed across termite species to find control targets effective for all types of termites.

‘Greener’ termite bait

Current termite control measures consist largely of synthetic chemical-based products, some of which are toxic to vertebrates, Scharf says.

“While current pesticides are very effective products, the problem is that you’re injecting large volumes of them into the soil around the house. It would be nice to move to a greener technology, and that’s what the genome sequence could enable us to do.”

Baiting termites with small quantities of treated wood that they could eat and share with colony-mates would be one such technique, he says. Newer technology such as gene silencing, which targets termite RNA to reduce the expression of critical genes, could also knock out the pests.

“With termites, you don’t have to impact all of them,” Scharf says. “Targeting just a fraction of the workers could cause an entire colony to collapse.”

Social strife

Published in Nature Communications, the study also highlights genes related to chemical communication, the way that termites “talk” to one another to signal aggression or a desire to reproduce.

“There’s a lot of social strife in a termite colony, and it’s got to stay cohesive to survive,” Scharf says. “Chemical communication is crucial to keeping the labor force in place.”

The genome could also help researchers better understand the symbiosis between termites and the more than 4,000 species of bacteria that thrive in their guts, aiding in processes such as digestion and defense.

Previous studies of the termite gut were hampered by the inability to distinguish between termite and microbe genes. Understanding the gut biology is important to Scharf, who is researching the enzymes that termites use to digest wood. Identifying these enzymes could lead to novel methods of producing cellulosic biofuels.

“The genome provides a well-defined roadmap that could help us find the right cocktail of enzymes to break wood down into its simple sugars,” he said. “It takes a lot of the guesswork out.”

The US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Deutschen Forschungsgemeinscharf, and the Loewe Research Focus “Insect Biotechnology” contributed to the study.

Source: Purdue University