, Volume 61, Issue 1, pp 1-9
Date: 14 Jan 2003

Termite symbiotic systems: efficient bio-recycling of lignocellulose

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Abstract

Termites thrive in great abundance in terrestrial ecosystems and play important roles in biorecycling of lignocellulose. Together with their microbial symbionts, they efficiently decompose lignocellulose. In so-called lower termites, a dual decomposing system, consisting of the termite's own cellulases and those of its gut protists, was elucidated at the molecular level. Higher termites degrade cellulose apparently using only their own enzymes, because of the absence of symbiotic protists. Termite gut prokaryotes efficiently support lignocellulose degradation. However, culture-independent molecular studies have revealed that the majority of these gut symbionts have not yet been cultivated, and that the gut symbiotic community shows a highly structured spatial organization. In situ localization of individual populations and their functional interactions are important to understand the nature of symbioses in the gut. In contrast to cellulose, lignin degradation does not appear to be important in the gut of wood-feeding termites. Soil-feeding termites decompose humic substances in soil at least partly, but little is known about the decomposition. Fungus-growing termites are successful in the almost complete decomposition of lignocellulose in a sophisticated cooperation with basidiomycete fungi cultivated in their nest. A detailed understanding of efficient biorecycling systems, such as that for lignocellulose, and the symbioses that provide this efficiency will benefit applied microbiology and biotechnology.