Why Can Termites Eat Wood and Humans Can Not?

Feared for their voracity, termites have earned their bad reputation by eating wood, but this can now change thanks to a study by US scientists. and Germany, which has managed to explain this particular food habit as even beneficial to the environment.

“Termites can obtain nutrients from wood in the same way that we can get energy from potatoes and other foods rich in starch,” said Jared Leadbetter, a professor at the California Institute of Technology (USA).

In this affirmation of the American scientist is enclosed the key that differentiates, in alimentary terms, the termites of the human being and the other insects: they are able to take advantage of the wood thanks to the enzymes they have in their digestive system. “We do not eat wood because we are not able to digest it, but we can eat, digest and obtain nutrients from foods rich in starch, such as potatoes,” said Leadbetter, who points to starch as the chain of sugars that can be dissolved by the enzymes of the human being in digestion.

However, he added, “we can not digest wood because we do not have the ability to dissolve the sugar chains found in it, termites, on the other hand, do so because the microorganisms in their stomachs can dissolve them.”

These are the conclusions that American and German experts have drawn from an investigation that includes in its latest issue the British scientific journal ‘Nature’ and for which they have used a colony of termites from the town of Costa Rica.

In these insects, the researchers identified a high concentration of microorganisms capable of digesting cellulose and xylan – both polysaccharides such as starch and found in wood – which explains why this ability to ingest this material. But far from considering this food habit as negative, experts see in the ability of termites to eat wood a beneficial use for the environment.

“Termites are a type of organisms with a great capacity to degrade wood and, therefore, are important for the circulation of carbon in the environment and as sources of potential catalysts that convert wood into biofuel,” said experts in the field. the weekly

According to Leadbetter, termites play a “relevant” role in the renewal of ecosystems, since they favor the creation of biomass from dead plants, those to which those insects have driven the tooth. “The degradation and environmental circulation is a key aspect in any healthy ecosystem,” he said.

With this perception of the feeding of the so-called ‘white ants’, the scientists intend to show another face of an animal responsible for economic and cultural losses such as plague in pieces of wood, works of art and stored products. As gregarious insects, termites can live in colonies formed by more than two million, generally located in tropical or subtropical climates of South America, Africa and Oceania.

Far from being that “odious bug”, for experts termites are “rich reserves of bacteriological enzymes” with an important function in the understanding of the process of wood degradation and in the creation of methods to convert cellulose into biofuel.

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