Fungi farming termites

An HKI expedition is travelling to South Africa to study the interaction of termites, fungi and bacteria

| by Christine Vogler

Christine Beemelmanns laboratory
Christine Beemelmanns anlaysing natural products in her lab at HKI. Source: HKI/Schroll

Humans are not the only farmers - termites cultivate fungi in their mounds and feed on them. A research team from the HKI is now travelling to South Africa to investigate the complex behavior of these animals and to search for new active compounds.

"Termites collect material such as food and leaves, and together with this material they can bring fungal spores into the termite mounds. The spores pass through the termite's digestive tract and are excreted undigested." explains Christine Beemelmanns of the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology - Hans Knöll Institute. "The conditions inside the termits mound are ideal for the fungus. The termites cultivate the fungus and supply it with nutrients. In turn, the termites feed on the fungus." Christine Beemelmanns and her team will travel to South Africa to study the communication processes between these organisms: How is the fungus selected in the termite's digestive tract? Do the termites carry bacteria that protect the "cultivated" fungus from other microorganisms - similar to pesticides used in agriculture?

"The biggest challenge is that termites can't be kept in the lab. Therefore, we have to travel to Pretoria to take samples from the termite mounds". Christine Beemelmanns as well as colleagues from Denmark and the Netherlands were invited by scientists from the University of Pretoria to study the termite system together. Beemelmanns and her team are especially interested in the natural products that are produced by microorganisms and that govern the communication and interactions between organisms. These substances have been optimised by nature during evolution and are active compounds that can potentially by used as therapeutics.

The research team is accompanied by a film team that will document the field work.

Christine Beemelmanns