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Battling Termites? Just Add Sugar

Christine Dell'Amore
National Geographic News
June 8, 2009
 
If you've ever had to battle the tenacious termite, sweet revenge may be near.

A substance derived from glucose has been shown to weaken the insects' immune systems, making them vulnerable to infections from lethal microbes, a new study says.

The 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," said study co-author Ram Sasisekharan, a biological engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

(Related: "Don't Bug Out: How to Get Rid of Pests Without Pesticides.")

The discovery was inspired by the ways the human body fights disease. (Take a quiz on infectious diseases.)

"If you have someone who is immune-comprised, [they] die of opportunistic infections," Sasisekharan said.

Termites are vulnerable to just a few types of microbes, and evolution has armed the insects with a specific weapon against disease: a protein in their bodies that acts like an antimicrobial agent.

For added protection at home, the insects secrete this protein into their nests, where it releases compounds that fight off microbial invasion—a "very clever way of ensuring that microbes don't infest the colonies," Sasisekharan said.

But when researchers exposed termites to a glucose derivative called GDL, the substance blocked the insects' protective protein from forming, and the termites quickly died of disease.

Cheap and Safe

Termites and other pests cause an estimated U.S. $30 billion a year in damages to crops, buildings, and other structures in the United States, according to the study.

Yet some traditional pest-control treatments may be harmful to the environment and people. Preliminary research, for example, has revealed a possible link between exposure to pesticides—which paralyze an insect's nervous system—and incidence of Parkinson's disease in people.

(Related: "Low Sperm Counts Blamed on Pesticides in U.S. Water.")

"We do hope that [this] different approach—which is hopefully more selective and less toxic—would be a newer opportunity" for pest control, Sasisekharan said.

What's more, the inexpensive sugar derivative could also work on other pests, such as locusts and cockroaches.

Findings appear tomorrow in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
 

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