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Genetic differences in termite castes may lead to better control

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Learning the molecular processes that cause termite larvae to grow into workers, soldiers or reproductive adults may lead to new methods to decimate colonies of the wood-eaters, according to Purdue University researchers.

The scientists identified 25 genes that provide some of the first information concerning the differentiation of the insects based on the role they play within a colony. The study, published in this month's issue of the journal Genome Biology (http://genomebiology.com/2003/4/10/R62), shows that the level at which some of the newly discovered genes are expressed differs depending on which adult form the termite becomes.

"Many of the genes we found are involved in muscle function," said Michael Scharf, entomology research professor and lead author of the study. "Most of these muscle proteins are expressed in the soldiers and not the workers. The soldiers have big heads and jaws, so they require more muscle in the head to drive those jaws.

"But soldiers don't have wings, so they don't have flight muscles as are found in the developing nymphs, which become winged reproductive adults."

Though possibly hundreds of termite species exist around the world that are different sizes and live in different types of colonies, they all have similarities. They all eat wood or woody plants high in cellulose. They are very social and form monogamous relationships in which a new king and queen fly away from the original colony to form a new one. Termite larvae can become a member of any of three castes - soldiers, workers and the nymphs that develop into alates, or reproductively mature males and females.

The soldiers guard the colony but can't reproduce, fly or feed themselves. Workers feed the other termites, tend the larvae and young insects, and dig tunnels. The alates can fly and reproduce.

"Termites have a hormone, called juvenile hormone, t
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Contact: Susan A. Steeves
ssteeves@purdue.edu
765-496-7481
Purdue University
20-Oct-2003


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