Disruption of the termite gut microbiota and its prolonged consequences for fitness

Rebeca B. Rosengaus, Courtney N. Zecher, Kelley F. Schultheis, Robert M. Brucker, Seth R. Bordenstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


The disruption of host-symbiont interactions through the use of antibiotics can help elucidate microbial functions that go beyond short-term nutritional value. Termite gut symbionts have been studied extensively, but little is known about their impact on the termite's reproductive output. Here we describe the effect that the antibiotic rifampin has not only on the gut microbial diversity but also on the longevity, fecundity, and weight of two termite species, Zootermopsis angusticollis and Reticulitermes flavipes. We report three key findings: (i) the antibiotic rifampin, when fed to primary reproductives during the incipient stages of colony foundation, causes a permanent reduction in the diversity of gut bacteria and a transitory effect on the density of the protozoan community; (ii) rifampin treatment reduces oviposition rates of queens, translating into delayed colony growth and ultimately reduced colony fitness; and (iii) the initial dosages of rifampin had severe long-term fitness effects on Z. angusticollis. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that the antibiotic-induced perturbation of the microbial community is associated with prolonged reductions in longevity and fecundity. A causal relationship between these changes in the gut microbial population structures and fitness is suggested by the acquisition of opportunistic pathogens and incompetence of the termites to restore a pretreatment, native microbiota. Our results indicate that antibiotic treatment significantly alters the termite's microbiota, reproduction, colony establishment, and ultimately colony growth and development. We discuss the implications for antimicrobials as a new application to the control of termite pest species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4303-4312
Number of pages10
JournalApplied and environmental microbiology
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jul 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Biotechnology
  • Food Science
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Ecology


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