Scientists Sequence Genome of Primitive Termite

Posted on May 23, 2014

Castes of termite Zootermopsis nevadensis

A team of international researchers has sequenced the genome of the Nevada dampwood termite (Zootermopsis nevadensis). The researchers include North Carolina State University entomologists, Arizona State University scientists and Michael Scharf, a Purdue University professor of entomology. The image above shows various castes of the termite Zootermopsis nevadensis.

The dampwood termite is one of the world's most primitive social insects. Termites are not closely related to Hymenopterans, which includes bees and ants, but the study found some key similarities between dampwood termites and other social insects. For example, many of the termite genes involved in sex and caste determination appear to also be present in ants. The study also found differences. A major difference discovered by the research is that termites have fewer receptors associated with smell than other social insects.

Dr. R. Michael Roe, an NC State professor of entomology and co-author of the paper, says in a statement, "These sensory receptors may not be as important to being social as we previously believed, at least for these more primitive termites. These findings also show that you can't make assumptions about termites by studying ants - it's important to study both as comprehensively as possible."

Jurgen Liebig, associate professor with ASU's School of Life Sciences, says in a separate release, "Compared to the societies of mount building termites and the ant, bee and wasp societies, dampwood termites live in a piece of wood that they do not leave for foraging. They have less of a need for sophisticated communication and discrimination of foreign individuals. The low number of olfactory receptors we found in the genome seems to be an indication of this reduced need for olfactory abilities."

Purdue University professor of entomology Michael Scharf and eastern subterranean termites

Scharf, the O. Wayne Rollins/Orkin Chair in Molecular Physiology and Urban Entomology at Purdue, is pictured above holding a piece of wood containing eastern subterranean termites. Scharf says in a release, "The termite genome reveals many unique genetic targets that can be disrupted for better termite control. 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."

Scharf also 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."

A research paper, "Molecular traces of alternative social organization in a termite genome," was published here in Nature Communications.

Photo 1: Juergen Liebig

Photo 2: Purdue University photo / Tom Campbell

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