“Mutual beneficial” relationship of termite-protozoa goes back 100 mln yrs

May 15th, 2009 - 2:05 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, May 15 (ANI): The analysis of a termite entombed for 100 million years in an ancient piece of amber has revealed the oldest example of “mutualism” ever discovered between an animal and microorganism, namely protozoa.

The findings were made by George Poinar, an Oregon State University researcher and international expert on life forms found in amber.

This particular termite was probably flying around while mating in a wet, humid tropical forest in what is now Myanmar during the Early Cretaceous period - the age of the dinosaurs.

It may have been attacked by a bird or somehow torn open, and then it dropped into the sticky, oozing tree sap that would later become amber, providing an opportunity for the biology of this ancient insect to be revealed in a way that would otherwise have been impossible.

Out of its wounded abdomen spilled a range of protozoa, which even then were providing a key function for the termite - they helped it to digest wood.

Between animals and microorganisms, this is the earliest example ever discovered of “mutualism,” which is one type of symbiotic relationship in which two species help each other.

“Termites live on cellulose, mostly from the dead wood they chew, but they depend on protozoa in their gut to provide the enzymes that can digest the wood,” Poinar said.

“These protozoa would die outside of the termite, and the termite would starve if it didn’t have the protozoa to aid in digestion. In this case, they depend on each other for survival,” he added.

According to Poinar, even more primitive termites may have fed on a range of things they could digest themselves, but eventually they acquired protozoa that dramatically increased their ability to digest cellulose, and through evolutionary processes, they came to depend on it.

Somewhere on the evolutionary scale, the termites began producing a liquid that contained protozoa that they would excrete.

The termite offspring in turn consume the feces and thereby gain the protozoa in their digestive systems.

The successful establishment of protozoa in the termites required them to withstand the chemical and physical conditions inside the alimentary tract, use the gut contents as a food source, cause no damage to the host and be carried through successive stages and generations.

“The relationship between termites and protozoa is very close and has been stabilized now for a very long time because of its obvious value,” Poinar said.

“It’s exciting to understand that this classic example of mutualism has been going on now for at least 100 million years,” he added. (ANI)

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