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Termites Create Their Own Antibiotics

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Termites cause $40 billion in damage every year, worldwide, and researchers say the insects have developed an ingenious defense against pesticide: They make antibacterial nests out of their own poo.

Termites have evolved to use their feces as a source of natural antibiotics, according to a report in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B. By integrating their poo into building materials, termite nests prevent the spread of disease and counter certain insecticides.

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An average termite is just 3/8 of an inch long, and yet these tiny subterranean insects have foiled humans for centuries.

“Killing a single termite is not a problem,” lead author Thomas Chouvenc told Discovery News. “Killing a whole colony is a challenge.”

“With the Formosan subterranean termites, the nest can be spread in the ground over 150 meters (492 feet) through a complex system of tunnels,” added Chouvenc, a researcher at the University of Florida. “They are therefore difficult to detect, and usually people notice them in their house after extensive damage becomes visible.”

There are about 3,000 described species of termites, but only 80 are considered structural pests. The Formosan termite is now under countless homes in subtropical and temperate areas, he said. The Eastern subterranean termite, native to the United States, is also prevalent.

Chouvenc and his team collected five Formosan termite colonies in Broward County, Fla. The researchers analyzed the nests, including performing tests to determine the antimicrobial activity.

The scientists determined that the poo-containing nest material promoted the growth of Streptomyces, a beneficial bacteria. It, in turn, prevented infection caused by other microbes.

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