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Airdate: Mar 15, 2006
Scientist: Jared Leadbetter

Termite - Beauty

Termite - Beauty
Welcome to the exotic and beautiful world within a termite's gut.


Picture a world of countless exotic creatures swimming busily around, feeding. Welcome to the inside of a termite’s gut! I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

“Most termites have a very complex ecosystem that is living within their hindgut - the counterpart to our colon, if you will. They can have in this small drop that comprises their hindgut fluid, as many as 200 or more species of bacteria. It’s a very, very diverse place.”

Environmental Microbiologist Jared Leadbetter spends a lot of time looking at termites’ guts as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology.

“Many people, when they first observe the termite hindgut community are really shocked. It’s like being an ecotourist in Alice in Wonderland. It is so wild a place. There are these objects that look like seals: hairy, long, furry animals, which are swimming amongst all these other cells. Of course, these are single celled microbes. But they have such bizarre shapes and movement in their liquid environment, that they invoke much more complex, larger animals in our mind. So, it’s just a very striking sight when you look at these organisms that have been freshly collected from the termite hindgut.”

The microbes that make their home in a termite’s gut have a big job to do. If it weren’t for them, a termite wouldn’t be able to digest its diet of wood and other plant matter.

“Microbes are challenged with eating something larger than their head. Termites provide a mechanism for these microbes to gain access to a sound piece of wood. So, it’s a symbiosis between an insect, which has mandibles, which can grind wood into very, very small particles and deliver them to this hindgut community. And microbes then that can work on these wood particles in ways that are beneficial to the insect.”

We’ll hear more about termites and their microbes in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.