CORVALLIS, Ore. The analysis of a termite entombed for 100 million years in an ancient piece of amber has revealed the oldest example of "mutualism" ever discovered between an animal and microorganism, and also shows the unusual biology that helped make this one of the most successful, although frequently despised insect groups in the world.
The findings were made by George Poinar, an Oregon State University researcher and international expert on life forms found in amber. It was just published in Parasites and Vectors, a professional journal.
This particular termite was probably flying around while mating in a wet, humid tropical forest in what is now Myanmar during the Early Cretaceous period the age of the dinosaurs. It may have been attacked by a bird or somehow torn open, and then it dropped into the sticky, oozing tree sap that would later become amber, providing an opportunity for the biology of this ancient insect to be revealed in a way that would otherwise have been impossible.
Out of its wounded abdomen spilled a range of protozoa, which even then were providing a key function for the termite they helped it to digest wood. Between animals and microorganisms, this is the earliest example ever discovered of "mutualism," which is one type of symbiotic relationship in which two species help each other.
"Termites live on cellulose, mostly from the dead wood they chew, but they depend on protozoa in their gut to provide the enzymes that can digest the wood," Poinar said. "These protozoa would die outside of the termite, and the termite would starve if it didn't have the protozoa to aid in digestion. In this case they depend on each other for survival."
Even more primitive termites may have fed on a range of things they could digest themselves, Poinar said, but eventually they acquired protozoa that dramatically increased their ability to digest cellulose, and through evolutionary processes they came t
|Contact: George Poinar|
Oregon State University