Aussie-led research identifies "gut advantage" behind termite dominance

SYDNEY, Feb. 9 (Xinhua) -- Termites have unique "gut factories" that allow them to digest unusual food like wood and this ecological advantage may point to the development of sustainable biofuels, according to a latest Australian-led research.

The insects are one of the world's most ecologically dominant creatures and boast micro-organisms in their gut that allow them to eat wood, soil and other material, the University of Sydney said about its research in a statement on Friday.

That digestive ability actually helps the tiny, widespread termites become heavyweights of the animal kingdom. Their global cumulative weight topped humans and is second only to cattle, said the university's Professor Nathan Lo, lead author of an international paper on the research published in scientific journal Current Biology.

"In order to digest wood and other material, termites rely on an intensive factory of millions of unique microorganisms in their gut, which can account for two-thirds of the termite's total body weight," said Lo. Each microbe in the termite gut was like "a little machine in a complex factory, which turns wood plus air into sugar and protein."

The researchers sequenced the DNA of the termite gut microbes and compared it with all other kinds of microbes on earth, including those from agriculture and industrial plants.

"Our research shows most of the microbes that live in termite guts are found nowhere else in nature and have become highly specialized for the difficult task of helping termites digest wood, which very few kinds of animals can do," said Lo.

"Learning about how termites convert wood and other biomass into sugars may be applicable to the production of sustainable biofuels," he said.

[ Editor: meng ]


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