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It’s a bug’s life

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Doctoral student Erin Cole researches how termite eggs cope with bacteria to understand the role of parenting in early development. Photo by Matthew Moodono/Northeastern University

“I study termites,” says Erin Cole, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology. “I’m not here to tell you how to kill them.”

No, she’s here at RISE:2016 to help us learn from them. Her research, titled “Battling Bacteria: Parenting Lessons from Termites,” explores how the eggs of termites—the progeny—cope with bacteria. Her findings could have broad ecological implications and also provide clues for pest management, perhaps using bacteria to control their spread.

Cole, who specializes in ecology, entomology, and evolutionary biology, is fascinated by these wood-chomping insects. They are extremely social, she says, and despite living in colonies that can number to the hundreds of thousands, they are monogamous and couples share parenting responsibilities of their innumerable young. Fortunately, they generally get help from “worker” termites, members of the largest, most rudimentary caste who, not surprisingly, do all the hard labor.

What would happen, Cole wondered, if workers weren’t available? “On the subway, when someone sneezes, everyone is exposed,” she says. “I wanted to know: Can an egg resist a pathogen alone?”

To find out she isolated eggs at three stages of development and grew bacteria alongside them. The findings surprised her: The stage-one eggs—the newest ones—not only delayed bacteria growth but also reduced the bacteria population. The stage-two and stage-three eggs, however, enhanced the bacteria growth.

What might this mean? It could be that the termite parents lick the new eggs, perhaps depositing some temporary protectant on it, she speculates. Or it could be that the mother puts something inside the egg while it’s being formed. “What makes the nutrients in the egg also makes the immune response,” she says.

Most of us view termites as pests, not guides to childcare. Erin Cole’s continuing research could make us take a second look.

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