A species of termite protects itself from fungal infection by using the faeces lining its nest to cultivate bacteria.


Colonies of Coptotermes formosanus, a subterranean termite, are constantly exposed to pathogens such as the fungus Metarhizium anisopliae. For years, researchers have been trying to exploit the fungus to stop Coptotermes from chomping through wooden structures, but the insects have evolved several ways of resisting the pathogen.

Thomas Chouvenc and his colleagues at the University of Florida in Fort Lauderdale report another such defence mechanism: the mixture of wood pulp and faeces that lines Coptotermes' nests (pictured) supports bacteria that have antimicrobial activity, including a Streptomyces species that is effective against Metarhizium. The bacterium gave termites a considerable survival advantage in soil that harboured the fungus.

Interfering with this mutually beneficial insect–bacterium relationship might aid pest control, and termite faeces could also be an untapped source of medicines that protect against infection, the authors say.

Proc. R. Soc. B 280, 20131885 (2013)