The termite genome has been sequenced for the first time, allowing biologists an in-depth look at the genetic code of the insect for the first time. This new study could also prove useful for practical applications, in addition to just gaining a better understanding of insect genetics.
Like bees, only a few termites mate, while most carry out the roles of workers and soldiers.
Termites cause up to $40 billion a year in damage across the United States.
Investigators from the United States, Germany and China worked together, in order to produce the first-ever map of the termite genome.
The Nevada dampwood termite was the subject of the study. This type does not do significant damage to structures. However, it is closely related to the eastern subterranean termite, which causes significant damage to wood structures throughout the eastern half of the United States.
Michael Scharf of Perdue University is one of the researchers who led the team. The entomologist believes by studying the code, it may be possible to develop pest control methods that do not rely on potentially harmful chemicals.
"The termite genome reveals many unique genetic targets that can be disrupted for better termite control. Depending on which gene or protein that is targeted, we could disrupt termites' neurological processes, molting, digestive factors or cuticle formation. We're just limited by our imagination," Scharf said.
Researchers hope that by studying the genetic makeup of termites, they can also learn about the drive toward socialization among insects.
"There's a lot of social strife in a termite colony, and it's got to stay cohesive to survive. Chemical communication is crucial to keeping the labor force in place," Scharf stated in a university press release.
The study highlighted genes used to produce chemical signals that indicate aggression and the desire to mate. Using earlier technology, it was impossible for geneticists to distinguish termite DNA from that of the bacteria.
More than 4,000 species of bacteria live in the guts of termites, which has made mapping of the insect's genetic structure difficult until now.
"This first termite genome represents an important step, because it fills a big gap in social insect genomics. It has been a puzzle for a long time that if there is any common mechanism... in different... insect groups," Guojie Zhang, co-author of the study, told reporters.
Mapping of the genetic structure of termites was published in the journal Nature Communications.