Colony response of the eastern subterranean termite to soilborne pathogens
Carlos Aguero, Carlos Aguero , Edward Vargo
Department of Entomology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA; Department of Entomology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA ; Department of Entomology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA
Termites are an important system for studying the evolution of social behavior in insects, but the cryptic nature of termite nests makes it difficult to observe colonies in the field. Subterranean termites spend their lives surrounded by soil and crowded colony conditions should make them susceptible to widespread infection from soilborne pathogens. Despite this intimate relationship with disease, subterranean termite colonies still thrive in natural conditions to the point that they are severe economic pests. Previous work to identify natural pathogens for termites has focused on culturable microbes, ignoring a large swath of potentially hidden disease agents. We have set out to uncover a more complete picture of the interaction between termite colonies and pathogens by investigating the diversity of microbes associated with the eastern subterranean termite (Reticulitermes flavipes) and the response of this termite to its natural pathogens. We examine this question first by identifying the impact of termite colony defenses on microbial diversity. High-throughput sequencing of the soil outside of colonies, soil within colonies, and the cuticle of the termite workers has allowed us to compare the changes in microbial diversity across different levels of termite colony defense. These results provide valuable insight into the importance of microbial agents that are both known and previously unknown to be associated with termite colonies. In addition, we have performed a series of behavioral studies testing how R. flavipes colonies alter their foraging habits when pathogens enter the environment and how the colony changes its behavior when infect foragers return to the colony.