[Note to Search Engines: This is Not Another Termite Poop Story.]
Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Beaten by Termite Innate Immune System (the science part)
Antiseptic procedures and germ theory, stuff now routine like doctors and nurses washing their hands to avoid contaminating patients, entered modern medicine via 19th-century applied entomology aimed at solving a mysterious silkworm population decline baffling Italy’s Agostino Bassi and France’s Louis Pasteur (See blog, The Mysteries of Colony Collapse). Today, Pasteur might be looking over the shoulder of Yuan Zeng in Xing Ping Hu’s Urban Entomology Lab at Auburn University, wondering how termites make themselves more robust and immune to disease. After working with silkworms and formulating modern germ theory, Pasteur realized that “the exclusive emphasis on the germ theory of contagious disease” was a very incomplete view of reality in need of modification; a radical notion that would be opposed by many in modern medicine even today, as germ theory has attained the status of orthodoxy and relegated the alternatives to the fringes.
Pasteur told colleagues that if he had the chance to go back to silkworm entomology again he would focus on nutrition, the environment and physiology (e.g. immunity) to increase robustness, vigor and disease resistance. Stuff that would be cutting edge in the 21st century. Stuff like termite entomologist Yuan Zeng’s study of how termite “innate immune systems” overcome MultiDrug Resistant (MDR) bacteria infecting over 2 million people annually in the USA. MDR bacteria in the USA annually kill over 23,000 “because they are untreatable with today’s drugs,” Zeng told the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting. MDR bacteria are also becoming “a significant global health threat.” An excellent YouTube video of Yuan Zeng describing her Auburn University research on termites defeating MDR bacteria is now available.
Zeng’s previous research with powdered extracts of Eastern subterranean termites (Reticulitermes flavipes) against bacteria causing human gastric distress lends credibility to traditional folk medicines containing insects. “Our previous research on disease resistance in R. flavipes workers showed that the crude extract of naive termites constitutively displayed a broad-spectrum antibacterial activity including agents responsible for human gastric infections,” Zeng told the ESA annual meeting. The logic behind using termites as medicines or drugs is that subterranean termites forage and nest in soil loaded with pathogenic microbes, making them a “source for novel antimicrobial discovery because they have evolved effective innate immune systems in confronting various harmful microorganisms.”
If a termite species is both pest and medical cure, then might an alternative to chemical fumigation be to harvest (e.g. trap or vacuum) the termites and sell them as a medicinal crop? That is a question that rarely, if ever, is asked. “Science has already proven the existence of immunological, analgesic, antibacterial, diuretic, anesthetic, and antirheumatic properties in the bodies of insects,” wrote Brazilian researcher Eraldo Medeiros Costa-Neto in an article titled ENTOMOTHERAPY OR THE MEDICINAL USE OF INSECTS. “Since early times, insects and the substances extracted from them have been used as therapeutic resources in the medical systems of many cultures. Commonly considered to be disgusting and filthy animals, many insect species have been used live, cooked, ground, in infusions, in plasters, in salves, and as ointments, both in curative and preventive medicines.”
Florida is the place where all the termites of the world seem to be coming to live. The Palm Beach, Florida, TV news recently warned of a Caribbean invasion of conehead or tree termites, known scientifically as Nasutitermes corniger. Conehead termites avoid competing with subterranean termites by building “beach-ball size” nests above ground and “brown tubes up the outside walls of houses,” and according to the TV make wood look like “shredded wheat.” Even “aggressive spraying” dating back to 2001 failed in its goal of eradication, and 100 million conehead termites nesting in 120 colonies amongst 42 properties were sprayed in 2012. Conehead termites, which are “distributed from southern Mexico to northern Argentina and the West Indies,” are “commonly used in traditional medicine in Northeast Brazil,” say scientists in Brazil. No doubt the coneheads will turn up again and again in Florida until they are finally accepted as residents. That is the nature of invasive insects.
Perhaps instead of chemical eradication programs, these termites should be harvested and exported to Brazil and elsewhere for medical use. “With the increase in microbial resistance to antibiotics, the use of natural products represent an interesting alternative for treatment,” wrote Henrique Coutinho and his Brazilian colleagues in an article titled “Termite usage associated with antibiotic therapy.” Crushed and powdered conehead termites mixed with a conventional antibiotic drug (which was failing, due to bacterial resistance) produced “a new weapon against the bacterial resistance to antibiotics” via a termite-drug synergy. In other words, mixing powered conehead termites with the drug made for a more powerful antibiotic medicine than using the antibiotic drug alone. At least the coneheads are good for something.
Yuan Zeng told the ESA and YouTube that she fed subterranean termites “sublethal concentrations of MultiDrug Resistant (MDR) pathogens, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or Pseudomonas aeruginosa (PAOl),” which induced “an alternation of protective proteins” produced by the termite’s innate immune system. “The composition changes of proteins following the feeding of MDRs significantly inhibited the growth of P. aeruginosa and MRSA,” said Zeng. “The results of this research could be a significant breakthrough for developing novel effective drugs” to fight human disease pathogens resistant to multiple antibiotic drugs. Worldwide, millions of people stand to benefit.
Known termite immune proteins include termicin, spinigerin, lysozome, tGNBPs, and “two unidentified proteins from several termite species with potent antibacterial and antifungal activities.” However, Zeng’s termite antimicrobial compounds are different; though there is still much scientific work to be done.
In the journal “Recent Patents on Biotechnology,” Japanese researchers Toru Matsui, Gaku Tokuda and Naoya Shinzato from University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa discussed patenting termite genes for alternative energy and drug production. “Although termites are regarded as harmful because of the ability to decompose cellulosic materials such as houses made of wood,” said Matsui et al. “Termites and/or their symbionts are potentially good resource of functional genes for industrial applications…for biomass utilization, environmental remediation, and fine-chemicals production.” Several termite genes have already been patented for biofuel (cellulase) and fighting infections (antimicrobial peptides).
A fungus-growing termite, Pseudacanthotermes spiniger, is notable for producing termicin, an antifugal peptide, and spinigerin, an anti-bacterial and antifungal peptide. “These peptides and the corresponding cDNAs have been patented as useful for protection of plants from pathogenic fungi or medical purposes,” said Matsui et al. “Similarly, some chemical antibiotic compounds isolated from termites have also been patented for the use of treating a microbial infection or disease.”
“Although entomotherapy is an ancient practice, it is still relatively unknown in the academic world,” wrote Costa-Neto. “In fact, as Holt already stressed in 1885, the advance of medical science and the suppression of folk knowledge swept away belief in the medicinal qualities of insects.”
Insect species outnumber plant species 16-fold, according to an article in The Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge: “Yet very few researchers have concentrated on the medically useful properties of insects. Most research with insects revolves around getting rid of them.”
Medical Botany refers to plants used for medical or health purposes. But there is no entomological equivalent. Medical Entomology addresses arthropods as medical or pest problems; and by analogy is like Weed Science to Botany. Insects as medicinal cures or health enhancers are outliers, orphan science, folk healing curiosities; perhaps supermarket tabloid fodder alongside celebrity scandals and UFO abductions.
In South India winged subterranean termites (Odontotermes formosanus) are traditionally roasted in earthen pots and consumed for three evenings to treat asthma. But their anti-bacterial qualities have not been explored, “mainly because of the difficulty in harvesting large numbers.” Memo to South India: An abundance of potentially medicinal subterranean termites are ready for harvesting and roasting for export in south Florida, Hawaii, New Orleans, Auburn, Mississippi, etc. Perhaps in some distant future a doctor will say, “Take two powdered termites and some Vitamin C, and call me in the morning.”