MIT and Northeastern University researchers may have finally found a way to tip the battle between humans and termites against the Mastotermes genus.
The secret is sugar.
The Boston research team has been trying to find alternatives to the chemical pesticides people use to ward off pesky insects. While toxic chemicals are designed to slaughter a particular pest, they are also indiscriminate killers; they not only have harmful effects on humans in high concentrations, but they also harm nearby insects including beneficial critters like ants.
The sugar solution, however, singles out termites by wearing down their immune response. There are bacteria and fungi that like to feast on termites, but, just like humans injecting vaccines, termites expose themselves to small amounts of pathogens to increase their immunity. They do it by embedding a protein in their nest which exposes the termites to small amounts of pathogens, just like a flu shot.
However, a derivative of ordinary glucose sugar called GDL is the protein's kryptonite; it allows bacteria or fungi to enter the termite nest with no advanced warning.
In the researcher's test, a nest exposed to GDL saw all its termites die of infection in half the time of an unexposed nest.
Significantly, GDL affects the immune responses only in the creatures humans find most probelmatic, like termites and cockroaches, and not in more beneficial ones like the ants. So if the sugar were deployed as a widespread pesticide, incorporated into building materials or sprayed on a field for example, it would target only the creatures we intend to kill.
Just about anything would be a better option than spraying toxic chemicals indiscriminately into the environment. But the researchers will have to test their approach more before it goes commercial. As promising as it sounds, nature has shown us again and again that unexpected consequences crop up all the time when humans try to manipulate the ecosystem.
If we're going to manipulate, however, a biodegradable substance like GDL seems like a far wiser method than poison.