Collaborative Research SG: Symbiont interactions and heterosis in a hybrid social insect Grant uri icon


  • The Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus) is a social insect and a major structural pest. Annually, the costs associated with the damage caused by this termite and efforts to control it are in the billions. In order to digest wood, termites such as the Formosan subterranean termite use a community of symbiotic protist species. The protists are highly specialized to the termite gut environment and cannot survive outside of their hosts. In termites, both the king (male parent) and the queen (female parent) pass these protists to their young. Each termite species harbors a unique community of protist species. However, virtually nothing is known about how these communities are maintained. More importantly, little is known about different protist species'' impacts on the fitness of their termite hosts. The discovery of a hybrid termite resulting from the mating between the Formosan subterranean termite and the Asian subterranean termite (Coptotermes gestroi), which harbor different species of protists, provides a unique research opportunity. By creating hybrid termites, with different gut protists, this research will greatly improve our understanding of how the communities of protists in termite guts are maintained. Furthermore, the hybrid termites created by this research will allow for detailed studies of how gut protists influence termite fitness. Since hybrid termites occur naturally, this research will also help generate informed pest control strategies. Graduate students at three universities will be trained as part of the project. This study will characterize and compare the protist hindgut communities of the Formosan subterranean termite, the Asian subterranean termite and their hybrids. High throughput sequencing will be used to identify all protist species from each mating combination at multiple time points. This will reveal patterns of coexistence and/or competitive exclusion among the protists. Additionally, the research will dissect any potential effect of parental gender on symbiont community composition. The study will also investigate which aspects of termite biology contribute most to the observed vigor of the hybrids. To do so, the work will profile the symbiont communities of chimeric colonies. Chimeric colonies are those in which the parents are hybrids, but symbiont communities derive from a single host species. These chimeric colonies will be established by swapping primary reproductives between hybrid and conspecific colonies after they have lost their protists but before the colonies mature sufficiently to reject intruders. This award reflects NSF''s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation''s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

date/time interval

  • 2018 - 2020