To Stop a Termite Rampage, Scientists Add Sugar

By Eliza Strickland | June 10, 2009 8:59 am

termites 2Pest control has never looked so sweet. Scientists have found that a simple derivative of sugar can shut down the immune defenses of ravaging termites, thus leaving the insects open to attacks from bacteria and fungus. Says lead researcher Ram Sasisekharan: “When you have an immune system that is compromised, you have a variety of opportunistic infections that take over…. You give these microbes sort of a leg up to attacking more seriously” [The Scientist]. 

As termites cause an estimated $30 billion in crop and building damages each year, and most current methods used to combat them rely on toxins that disrupt the termites’ nervous systems. These new findings could give rise to a whole new class of safer pest-control treatments, the authors say. “We wanted something environmentally friendly, biodegradable, and [that] does not play a toxic role” [National Geographic News], says Sasisekharan.

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers note that the termites’ immune systems rely on proteins called pattern-recognition receptors, which can spot microbes that should not be present.Such receptors come under a class of ‘gram-negative bacteria binding proteins’, or GNBPs [Chemistry World]. The termites have these proteins in their cells, and also secrete the protein in their saliva, which they paint onto their nests to prevent bacterial and fungal invasions. Based on the structure of GNBP, the researchers deduced that a simple sugar derivative known as GDL would inhibit the enzyme. When 24 termites ate GDL-treated filter paper before exposure to a fungal pathogen, all of them died within 5 days. In contrast, groups with intact GNBP activity hung on 4 days longer [ScienceNOW Daily News].

GDL is cheap and nontoxic–it’s even used as a food additive–and the researchers are looking for ways to formulate it into paints, wood, or baits to make termites sickly [ScienceNOW Daily News]. The researchers also note that roaches and locusts have similar immune systems to termites, raising the possibility that GDL could be effective against those bugs as well.

Related Content:
80beats: Termite Queens Are Doin’ It For Themselves

Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
  • QUASAR

    A new form of insecticide specifically for termites.

  • Staci

    So if i sprinkle sugar in areas where I have seen termites, will that work–or will it only draw ants? Where can I purchase a GDL product to use?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Staci — no, don’t sprinkle sugar! GDL is a derivative of sugar, but unless you have a chemistry lab in your basement you wouldn’t be able to make yourself a batch. And GDL products are not yet commercially available — this is early stage research.

  • lyllyth

    Has anyone considered if by inviting termite pathogens into our homes (after the application of GDL), we’re setting ourselves up to be their next carrier?

    What does GDL *stand for* anyhow? I hate unexplained acronyms!!
    I can’t look up the chemistry of it definitively!
    Is it glucono delta-lactone?
    And it’s already in our food…hmmmmm.

  • erg

    d-delta-gluconolactone (GDL)
    good question. found this on another site.

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