Enzyme activities at different stages of plant biomass decomposition in three species of fungusgrowing termites

Rafael R. da Costa*, Haofu Hu, Bo Pilgaard, Sabine M. Vreeburg, Julia Schückel, Kristine S.K. Pedersen, Stjepan K. Kračun, Peter K. Busk, Jesper Harholt, Panagiotis Sapountzis, Lene Lange, Duur K. Aanen, Michael Poulsen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


Fungus-growing termites rely on mutualistic fungi of the genus Termitomyces and gut microbes for plant biomass degradation. Due to a certain degree of symbiont complementarity, this tripartite symbiosis has evolved as a complex bioreactor, enabling decomposition of nearly any plant polymer, likely contributing to the success of the termites as one of the main plant decomposers in the Old World. In this study, we evaluated which plant polymers are decomposed and which enzymes are active during the decomposition process in two major genera of fungus-growing termites. We found a diversity of active enzymes at different stages of decomposition and a consistent decrease in plant components during the decomposition process. Furthermore, our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that termites transport enzymes from the older mature parts of the fungus comb through young worker guts to freshly inoculated plant substrate. However, preliminary fungal RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) analyses suggest that this likely transport is supplemented with enzymes produced in situ. Our findings support that the maintenance of an external fungus comb, inoculated with an optimal mixture of plant material, fungal spores, and enzymes, is likely the key to the extraordinarily efficient plant decomposition in fungus-growing termites.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere01815-17
JournalApplied and Environmental Microbiology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2018


  • AZCL
  • Chromogenic substrates
  • HPLC
  • Macrotermes
  • Odontotermes
  • Peptide pattern recognition
  • Plant substrate
  • RNA-seq
  • Symbiosis
  • Termitomyces


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