Could Termite Poop Hold Antibiotic Properties? New Research Reveals What Makes Insect Resistant To Deadly Microbes

By Philip Ross on September 23, 2013 8:50 PM EDT

termite poop
Termites build their nests by mixing their own feces with chewed wood particles. A new study shows that the insect’s droppings may contain beneficial microbes that protect the nest from dangerous pathogens. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Florida scientists studying termites' ability to survive deadly microbes may have discovered antibiotic properties in the insects' poop. After analyzing bacteria from material collected from five termite colonies in Florida, researchers found that 70 percent of these bacteria actually killed a wide range of pathogens, according to Florida Biotechnology News.

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Every year, termites cause about $40 billion worth of damage to infrastructure worldwide. For decades, scientists have tried to come up with biological, environmentally friendly ways to get rid of the destructive pest. But oftentimes when they've tried to introduce a deadly fungus, yeast or bacteria into a termite colony to kill it, the effort failed.

Termites build their nests, which can house up to 1 million termites, with a material made from feces and chewed wood particles. Live Science reports that the termites also use their droppings to line the interior corridors of their nests, which can reach up to 490 feet in length. Researchers believe the feces promote the growth of certain bacteria and fungus-killing microbes that protect the termite nest.  

"By manipulating their environment with the use of feces, termites promote the growth of such beneficial microbes," researcher Thomas Chouvenc, an entomologist at the University of Florida, told LiveScience. "It is much cheaper for an organism to borrow someone else's existing ability than to come up with such ability."

After identifying about 500 different types of bacteria in samples from five different termite colonies, the Chouvenc and his team found that one strain, Streptomyce, was present in every sample. When they removed this strain of bacteria from the nests and then introduced a deadly fungus, the nests died. The same happened when the researchers introduced other types of fungi as well.

The study, titled "Extended disease resistance emerging from the fecal nest of a subterranean termite," is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The team hopes that the termites' naturally occurring antibiotic poop could prove effective in human antibiotics.

Termite poop isn't the only novel place scientists are hoping to squeeze antibiotics from. Scientists in California are looking to the ocean floor for signs of new antibiotics. Mud from the bottom of the ocean could harbor life-saving microbes that could combat the rise in drug-resistant "superbugs." 

Read more from iScience Times:

Antibiotic Ocean Mud: New Bacteria Found Off Calif. Coast Fights Anthrax, Could Combat Drug-Resistant Superbugs [REPORT]

Catastrophic Antibiotic Threat: Are We Becoming Immune To Antibiotics?

CRE Superbug Resists Antibiotics, Takes One Year To Die Off Says Latest Study [REPORT]

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