Termite genome could lead to greener treatments

(WLFI Photo, file)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — A Purdue University researcher hopes a new study of the Nevada dampwood termite leads to less toxic control of the destructive pests.

Purdue entomologist Michael Scharf worked on a study that sequenced the genome of the Nevada dampwood termite. It appeared in the May 20 issue of Nature Communications.

The Nevada dampwood doesn’t cause significant damage to buildings, but it is closely related to the eastern subterranean termite that is the main pest species in Indiana and the eastern United States. Termite control and damage costs about $40 billion in damage each year.

Researchers have long been seeking greener ways to treat termite infestations. The current treatment involves injecting powerful pesticides into the soil around the house. Those are potentially harmful to humans and animals.

Scharf told the Journal & Courier that knowing about the genome could lead to less invasive methods of combating the insects.

“It would be nice to move to a greener technology, and that’s what the genome sequence would enable us to do,” he said.

Most of the gene mapping was done by a lab in China, with German, Canadian and U.S. labs contributing, Scharf said. His role involved looking through the data and identifying termite genes and their functions.

Some genes, for example, are responsible for the chemical communication system termites use to live in highly organized colonies where different castes have distinct roles.

Baiting termites with small quantities of wood treated to silence the communication gene could, in theory, be just as effective as large doses of toxic chemicals, the study found.

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

The same enzymes that termites use to digest wood could be used to break wood into simple sugars. That could lead to the production of new biofuels.

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


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