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Academic Minute

Dr. Kenneth Noll, University of Connecticut – Microbes and Termite Digestion


In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Kenneth Noll of the University of Connecticut reveals why termites would not be a threat to your home without the help of microbes. 

Ken Noll is a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Connecticut where he studies thermophilic microbes that live in high temperature environments such as hot springs, volcanically-heated muds, and deep sea vents. He is also involved in a project investigating the microbes that inhabit the gut of termites. His work has been widely published and he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois.

About Dr. Noll

Dr. Kenneth Noll – Microbes and Termite Digestion

We would be buried under dead trees were it not for termites. Termites eat away at bits of wood, decomposing it as they swallow. But they can’t do it alone. The real heroes behind termites are the microbes in their guts, which actually digest the wood particles. The microbes convert the wood into chemicals that feed both the microbes and the termite. A termite and its microbes cooperate using chemical signals to communicate both among the microbes as well as between the microbes and the termite’s cells inside its gut. Microbes tell termite cells how they are doing, so those cells can control the gut environment and keep the nutrients flowing.

A team of scientists and engineers, including myself, at the University of Connecticut are trying to "listen in" on these signals in a project funded by the National Science Foundation. Because termites eat only one food, it is much easier to study termite guts than human guts. The more we know about how the termites' microbial communities communicate, the better we can understand how the microbial communities in our own digestive tract work.

In this project we will take microbes from a termite’s gut and put them inside a microscopic artificial termite gut. Using tiny electrodes we can control the artificial gut environment to see how this changes the chemical conversations among the microbes. So far we have constructed electrodes that deliver small amounts of oxygen to the artificial gut just as the termite’s cells do. We find that the amount of oxygen that we breathe can kill these microbes, so we will transfer these microbes to their new, artificial home inside an oxygen free chamber and then feed them the little bit of oxygen they need. There is a lot to be learned from listening in on microbial chit chat.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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