Pest 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.
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