LSU AgCenter Researcher Searching For Killer Gene To Control Formosan Termites

Claudia Husseneder  |  4/19/2005 10:29:02 PM

News Release Distributed 08/16/04

Although termites feed on wood and other cellulose products, they depend on bacteria in their digestive tracts, or gut, to actually digest the wood fibers and get the nutrients they need.

Dr. Claudia Husseneder, a researcher in the LSU AgCenter, has come up with a way of transferring genetically modified bacteria into termite populations and is looking for a killer bacterium to squelch Formosan subterranean termite colonies that are eating their way through Louisiana cities.

Believed to have entered Louisiana and other Southern coastal states in wooden crates returned from the Pacific Rim during and after World War II, the insects have steadily increased in number and destructiveness over the past 55 years.

Formosan subterranean termites have moved north from New Orleans and Lake Charles and now have been found in all parishes south of I-10 and I-12, as well as in some areas of north and central Louisiana.

"To help understand what’s going on, we need to understand the biology of termites," Husseneder says. "It provides information to approach control better."

What Husseneder wants to do is engineer bacteria that are found exclusively in the termites’ gut to produce substances that would be toxic only to Formosan subterranean termites. The termites don’t have any natural enemies in the United States.

Husseneder says one advantage of using bacteria is that they naturally multiply and don’t dilute like chemicals as they’re passed around a colony.

"Each worker termite has a stable microbial community in its gut, which is naturally exchanged between colony members through social interactions, such as grooming and feeding each other," Husseneder says. "Therefore, we felt that natural gut microbes would be excellent tools for termite control."

Using what she terms a "bacteria shuttle system," Husseneder is using "microbes as tools and targets for termite control."

Her initial work was done with bacteria isolated from the termite gut and engineered to produce fluorescent protein, which causes bacteria to glow under ultraviolet light, to see if the process would work. And it does.

Husseneder’s laboratory work has shown termites can be easily infected by feeding them with the engineered bacteria.

"They’re able to survive in the termite gut and are rapidly transferred among colony members," she says. "Even a few termites infected with ‘glowing’ bacteria can infect a whole laboratory colony within one week."

Like a "Trojan horse," the bacteria can serve as a shuttle to introduce and spread a killer gene into a termite colony, Husseneder says. Now, she’s looking for that killer.

In collaboration with scientists from the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Veterinary Sciences and other AgCenter entomologists, Husseneder has identified proteins that destroy the three species of protozoa on which the termites depend for digesting wood.

"We are now in the process of measuring the activity of these protozoa-killing proteins by injecting them directly into the termite hindguts," she says.

The next step is to genetically engineer termite gut bacteria to produce the most-efficient, termite-killing proteins.

"To reduce the risk of environmental contamination, we will use specific bacteria that are not able to survive outside the termite gut as our shuttles," Husseneder says. "Ultimately, we hope to develop a self-replicating, self-perpetuating product that will kill termites rapidly plus be cost effective and target specific."

Husseneder’s research is funded by state money earmarked for termite research, as well as a grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents and funds from Dow AgroSciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s termite program in the New Orleans French Quarter and the Tropical and Subtropical Agriculture Research program.

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Contact: Claudia Husseneder at (225) 578-1819 or chusseneder@agcenter.lsu.edu
Writer: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-5839 or rbogren@agcenter.lsu.edu

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