Book review of Underbug: an obsessive tale of termites and technology

Preface.  I read this book mainly to find out where “grassoline” stood. Scientists thought 10 years ago that we could recreate the termite biota system of digesting biomass to create biofuels.  But this appears to be far in the future — if ever — the termite biota system in their guts is simply too difficult, if not impossible, to scale up in a giant vat.

An unexpected pleasure was how very funny Margonelli is.  This is a delightful book, highly recommended.  As usual my notes below from the Kindle are what interested me, rather than the best parts of the book.  So read it!

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

Lisa Margonelli. 2018. Underbug. An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology. Scientific American.

Meta levels of understanding of the termite superorganism

When early European naturalists looked into beehives and termite mounds, they saw the monarchies they came from—with workers, soldiers, and kings and queens. It was misleading, he said, and kept us from really understanding what was going on with termites at all. When I got home, I looked this up. Eugene was correct. Peering into beehives in the 1500s, naturalists literally saw Europe and its political structures in miniature. For two hundred years, they generally didn’t describe queen bees as “queens”—that is, females, because they believed only a male king could be head of such a magnificent insect state. It wasn’t until the 1670s that queens were females became known.

Consider the report that Henry Smeathman gave to the Royal Society in 1781 about the glories of termite civilization: The mound is England in miniature, with “laborers,” “soldiers,” and “the nobility or gentry.” He noted that bug nobility were worthless: they couldn’t feed themselves, work, or fight, but had to be supported by the others. He saw this as a justification for aristocracy—in insects as in humans—“and nature has so ordered it.

 

The great danger of seeing social insects anthropomorphically is that it obscures their true bugginess. In the 1970s and ’80s, when the ant scientist Deborah Gordon began studying massive ant colonies in the American Southwest, scientists described the ant colony as “a factory with assembly-line workers, each performing a single task over and over.” Gordon felt the factory model clouded what she actually saw in her colonies—a tremendous variation in the tasks that ants were doing. Rather than having intrinsic task assignments, she saw that ants changed their behavior based on clues they got from the environment and one another. Gordon suggested that we should stop thinking of ants as factory workers and instead think of them as “the firing patterns of neurons in the brain,” where simple environmental information gives cues that make the individuals work for the whole, without central regulation.

The role of joy in social organisms is not something we have a metric for, so it’s not anything that modern biology entertains seriously. Robots and virtual termites have rules, but the rules of socialness—these urges and possibly even intentions—are unknowable to us. Watching this party, we find it hard to separate the building imperative (that possible stigmergy) from the termites’ strange sticky social nature. Maybe they build the mound because it’s fun to do it together.  Maybe they transfer water because they’re thirsty and moving the stuff around feels fun and necessary. And on this feeling of fun, perhaps, entire ecosystems are organized.

The field of complex systems is still in the stage of gathering insights into biology while waiting for someone to appear with a unifying theory. Come up with a viable theory for the way termites build and it could change the way computer networks run, how wars are fought, and how disasters get responded to. The emergent equivalent of thermodynamics could upend the world.

Should we worry that we’re just modeling our own assumptions? Are the termites random, noisy, or something else? The very concept of the black box might be a kind of cognitive trap that was preventing the scientists from seeing that the termites were, at some level, doing.

If termites were actually factory workers, most of them would be fired. During one experiment, it was clear that only 5 of 25 termites were building. In another dish two termites did the building while four helped a little and the remaining 19 just ran around. Kirstin said that when she started tracking what each termite was doing—not just where it was going—she discovered that even though some ran around a lot, only a few made progress on the actual building. Termites seemed to do whatever they felt like: dig, take up soil and clean the dish, sit around.

Kirstin’s data revealed a world that was more intuitive—more gooey, more individual, and less robotic—than the more mechanistic views of termites that humans had been able to imagine. It was as if scientists had forced themselves to obey a set of rules about how to think about what termites do—their own internal algorithm of possibility—and that led them astray.

In one study, scientists expected termites to drop their dirt balls on old mound soil, but they also seemed to pick up balls from that soil. For Paul, this was a eureka moment. If the old mound soil contained a cement pheromone, then it should work like a key fitting into a lock, releasing exactly one behavior. But once you could see individual termites in the video, you could see that they did all sorts of things when they encountered the mound soil containing its possible pheromones. In fact, whatever they were doing, they changed it. If they were carrying, they dropped. If they were empty, they picked up. “It causes everything!” Paul explained. Technically, it appeared that the mound soil contained an arrestant that signaled the termites to finish up whatever they were doing. Paul called it a “Shalom” chemical, appropriate for any and all occasions, its meaning dependent on the context.

The cue for building—like the sound of running water for beavers—was digging itself. The concept of stigmergy, in other words, might be upside down: instead of being driven by dirt balls that inspired further dirt balls, it was driven by digging. When a few termite individuals started digging, others would join them, shoving in—as we’d seen—like pigs at a trough.

Paul figured out the termites’ rules for tunneling. If one termite was in a tunnel, it went straight. If so many termites were in the tunnel that they piled up, some would start digging a branch off to the side. So the pressure of termites in the tunnel influenced how much it branched.

Scott had come to think that the mounds themselves were a physical memory, with their mixture of shapes and smells and templates of gases, that allowed one generation of termites to pass their gains on to the next the way we hand down machines and books. This concept made them, in a sense, the architects of their own codes—in the balls of mud and spit of the mound—rather than robots who merely enacted the code written in their genes.

The symbiotic relationship between Macrotermes and the fungus is tight. Prejudiced by our human sense of a hierarchy of the animate termites over inanimate mushrooms, we’d be inclined to believe that the termites control the fungus. But the fungus is physically much larger than the termites in size and energy production: Scott estimates that its metabolism is about eight times bigger than that of the termites in the mound. “I like to tell people that this is not a termite-built structure; it’s a fungus-built structure,” he says, chuckling. It is possible that the fungus has kidnapped the termites. It’s even possible that the fungus has put out a template of chemical smells that stimulates the termites to build the mound itself.

Even though we assume the termite is in charge of the guts, it’s completely possible that the guts are in charge of the termite.  Perhaps, he added, the termite is just a delivery vehicle for the contents of the guts!  Maybe our gut microbes are in charge of us—demanding caffeine, say, or salt—fooling us into thinking we have free will and would like a cup of coffee.

Without the need to reproduce, or to venture far aboveground, both worker and soldier termites lost things they didn’t need: eyes, wings, and big, tough exoskeletons.  Most of the termites are eyeless and wingless, but the fertile termites who leave the mound on this night have eyes

Called “alates,” these male and female termites capable of reproduction are like fragile balsa wood glider planes: just sturdy enough to cruise briefly before crash-landing their payloads of genes. Alates are scrumptiously fatty, and reportedly have a nutty flavor, so what starts as a confetti shower of gametes turns into a scrum of birds, lizards, aardwolves, and sometimes humans trying to gobble them up, with the result that hardly any survive this nuptial flight. It’s possible that catching and eating these termites gave our australopithecine ancestors a booster shot of fat, proteins, and micronutrients that helped to feed their growing brains, leading eventually to our current human situation. This strange fact—that termites themselves may be partly responsible for the brains with which we try to study them—is typical of the weird dual vision of studying termites.

Termites suck water into their own bodies, sometimes taking up a quarter or even half of their body weight in water. They also grab soupy mud balls and move them to drier parts of the mound. For every pound of dirt the termites moved, they also carried nine pounds of water, meaning that in a year in just one mound termites were also moving thirty-three hundred pounds of water.

GRASSOHOL

Because termites are famously good at eating wood, the genes in their guts were attractive to government labs trying to turn wood and grass into fuel: “grassoline.

Termite guts are a molecular treasure chest: 90% of the organisms in them are found nowhere else on Earth.

The geneticists didn’t just want the microbes’ DNA, they also wanted the molecules of RNA, which could tell them which parts of the genetic code were in use at the precise moment the termites took their tumble into the thermos. Perhaps by seeing exactly how termites break down wood, we’d be able to do it, too.

The problem was that they regularly molted their intestines, which cleaned the microbes right out. Our evolving cockroaches started to exchange what entomologists politely call “woodshake”—a slurry of feces, microbes, and wood chips—among themselves, mouth to mouth and mouth to butt. After they pooled their digestion, it was a quick trip to constant communal living.

The termite itself is another shell company for a consortium of five hundred species of symbiotic microbes, all cooperating to digest wood for the mutual benefit of the Many.

Even better, some of these microbes are themselves conglomerations of several creatures acting as one.

Phil suspected the spirochetes in a termite’s guts had some kind of special enzyme capable of cutting the wall. If the lab could find these cutting enzymes and identify their genes, they might be helpful for the greater project of making grassoline.

When PHIL and thirty-eight other researchers first did genetic analysis of the Costa Rican termites’ guts in 2007, they found 71 million base pairs, or twinned molecules of DNA, which they sorted into approximately 80,000 genes, and among those—using computers—they identified 1,267 enzymes that might work to digest wood.

Press releases suggested that once the termite’s gut was decoded, we’d soon be inserting these codes into tame laboratory bacteria to produce enzymes and start digesting wood on a grand scale.

But the termite, it turned out, was a hard bug to crack…much more than an exceptionally elegant machine, a natural blueprint for a factory, or a source of code to “boot up” a bioreactor.

The details of how the termite’s crazy consortium of microbes accomplished wood eating are a mystery, difficult to re-create in the lab. “The joke is that by the time you’re done you’ll have a termite, and you might as well go and hook your car to a bunch of termites.

Here’s what will happen when termites finally get around to eating this book: one will use the clippers on the end of its mandibles to grab a mouthful about the size of a period. It’ll push that into its mouth, which resembles a grinder, with its hand-like palps. From there the shredded paper will make its way into the gut, which is about an eighth of an inch long and the width of a hair. The first stop in the gut is a gizzard, where the bite will be vigorously mashed with saliva containing enzymes to grab any free sugars, which are quickly absorbed by our termite. Next, this paper bite will journey through an alkaline tenderization chamber for a nice soak in the termite’s version of drain cleaner. After that, depending upon which kind of termite it is, the bit of papier-mâché will proceed through an elaborate enteric valve—a gorgeous gatekeeper made of many little fingers brushing the particle into the cavernous nightclub of the hindgut, named P3.

Microbially speaking, they’re a freak show. There are as many as 1400 different species of bacteria.

These microbes release enzymes that can unzip the cellulose and hemicellulose in our paper particle, producing sugars.

All around are masses of other microbes waiting to grab the sugars and process them into hydrogen and methane. Along the way they may synthesize some nitrogen compounds, too.

Microbes arrange themselves in neighborhoods where sympathetic creatures can eat one another’s garbage. Those who are the most friendly with oxygen sit on the edges of the gut, while those who can tolerate none hang out in the middle. All termites have bacteria; but some so-called higher termites, like the fungus-growing Macrotermes of Namibia, have only bacteria. By contrast, the guts of so-called lower termites host bacteria as well as exotic creatures called “protists”—single-celled organisms that are neither animal nor plant nor fungus. Protists are relatively huge and quite weird.

If you were a piece of paper the size of a bacterium, say, and just entering the termite’s third gut, you would be greeted by a giant swirling thing, 300 times your size, approaching like a cruise ship coming in to a dock, so big you wouldn’t have any idea how big it really was. That would be Trichonympha, the most common of the termite protists. It has a smooth, round cap, like the tip of a badminton birdie, and an enormous whirling hairball, made of thousands of flagella over its barrel-shaped body. Opposite the tip, buried under all the waving flagella, is a mouth, or maybe more accurately a portal, where Trichonympha draws in wood chips for digestion. That mouth, much like yours, is covered by little jujube-shaped bacteria—a nano-environment within a microenvironment. But you would have no time to think of these wondrous worlds within worlds because the Trichonympha’s great swirls would swirl you in, ever closer to that portal, where you would finally be ripped molecule from molecule in this gut within the gut.

Some of the “fringe” surrounding the protest is actually made of other symbiotic creatures.

For most of the history of microbiology, the vast majority of microbes have been untested and unknown because fewer than 1 % of them can be grown alone in a petri dish.

Ninety percent of the microbes were found nowhere else on Earth. Half of the genes in the gut were unknown.   “Any single one of those forty thousand unknown genes could be a whole PhD for someone.

“It’s a neat little system,” he enthused. “You’ve got all of these symbiotic microbes evolving with the termite hosts. It’s a simple enough system, but there’s an amazing complexity of hosts and dietary habits.

Did the termites get these microbes from eating dinosaur poo and coevolve with their passengers over the epochs? Or did they pick new microbes up whenever they ate a new food?

The termite’s gut is a black box for which we increasingly know the parts, and the results, but we don’t know exactly how they work. Freezing them fast preserves not only DNA—the stable strings of genetic material—but also the unstable RNA, which can reveal what genes were actually in play at the moment of death. Perhaps if we knew what termites were actually doing in their guts, rather than what they were capable of, we could understand the black box.

All termites use symbiotic collectives of bacteria and other microbes to digest cellulose for them, but Macrotermes outsource the major work to a fungus. In some senses the fungus functions as a stomach. Under the mound and around the nest sit hundreds of little rooms, each containing fungus comb. This comb is made of millions of mouthfuls of chewed dry grass, excreted as pseudofeces and carefully assembled into a maze.

Workers scour the landscape for dry grass, quickly run it through their guts, then place and inoculate each ball to suit the fungus’s picky temperament, tend the comb, and snarfle the fungus and its sugars before distributing the goodies to the rest of the family. Then the workers run off to gather more grass for the fungus.

It was clear that the termite was no longer in the running to provide genes for grassoline—the bug was just too complex—but it had become a sort of mascot, biological proof that those cellulose sugar chains could, in fact, be cracked.

For the biofuel project, the lab had turned its attention to wood-eating microbes in compost and in shipworms. But the termite remained a big shining example, an inspiration, and so Phil’s team continued to comb termite guts in search of ideas, microbial strategies, and systems.

In 2005 researchers at the Department of Energy had estimated that if the United States went totally termite we could harvest trees, crop residue (such as cornstalks), and high-energy grasses, and engineer microbes to turn them into sugars. Then those sugars could be fermented to make nearly 60 billion gallons of ethanol—a potential gasoline substitute—a year by 2030. In 2016 that estimate was updated to 100 billion gallons. Theoretically—and all of this was very theoretical—that would equal most of the petroleum we used for driving in 2015, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from driving by as much as 86 %.

JBEI’s explicit goal was to brew biofuel at a price that could eventually compete with gasoline. To accomplish that, the lab needed to engineer biological processes so that they are predictable and can scale from the small flasks in lab experiments to vast industrial tank farms. Teams of researchers focused on understanding and manipulating the plants themselves, understanding and increasing the processes that can break down cellulose, and designing microbes that can synthesize fuels from the sugars.

When it was finally extracted, the protein—it was just a squidge of stuff now, barely visible—was sent off to the crew who worked with mass spectrometry. They would hit the proteins with an electron beam to determine the identity of the amino acids and then use that to make educated guesses about the likely shape and identity of the protein. The thought of this made John philosophical. “We really don’t understand how proteins work. We know that they’re made of amino acids but we don’t understand how they fold. They have a pocket here and a pocket there.” A protein may behave one way in acid and another in water.

The metagenomic view shows that termites have guts that do certain jobs—think of it as a spec sheet for eating wood: soften the cellulose, chop up the sugar chains, ferment the sugars, and so on. All of the microbe species who’ve evolved for the party in the termite’s gut end up playing along with this essential script. And in doing that, they lose genes that they’d have needed to survive independently outside the gut and gain genes that allow them to be more helpful inside the gut. Finally, they are capable only of living in this one termite gut environment.   [my comment: Huge problem to scale up ]

Phil got the group to flip between databases to get the genomic data from a single spirochete, which strangely lacked its usual kit of genes for mobility and tracking toward chemicals. “What’s going on? This is totally atypical for a spirochete!” said Phil. Moving and sniffing for chemicals are defining characteristics of spirochetes. What is a spirochete that can’t move or smell? It’s an absurdity, and yet it is right there, in the data. Shaomei wondered if the spirochete’s genome got smaller and lost its genes for defense and mobility as the spirochete spent more evolutionary time in the termite’s gut. Phil hunched inward in front of his computer and then looked up to announce that this particular spirochete is living inside a protist—like Trichonympha—which lived inside the termite.* Protected inside two different organisms, apparently it no longer needs to move or defend, and so has lost those genes. Once you go symbiotic, you can never go back. It’s here, in this stuffy room, that I can see for the first time what it means that the termite’s gut is another composite animal made of millions of bacteria, who, like their termite hosts, have traded away eyes and wings for the advantages of living in numbers.

While competition has been part of the evolutionary process, at the microbial level it increasingly appears that cells compete to cooperate in communities—fitting in and helping out is essential to their survival.

Contrary to the orthodox evolutionary view that altruism is exceptional and requires special explanation … the norm among organisms is a disposition to act for the benefit of other organisms or cells. To get ahead they’ve got to get along. Codependent forevermore. Our old friend the superorganism has shown up here too, though sometimes it’s called a meta-organism.

Termites’ guts generally contain lots of bacterial genes for fixing nitrogen. The biggest difference between the wood-eating Nasutitermes from Rudi’s shower stall and the Amitermes who lived in an Arizona cow pie was that the wood eaters have tons of genes for fixing nitrogen while the cow-pie eaters don’t. This isn’t surprising: wood is a nitrogen-poor food, so the wood eaters would need ways to fix it for themselves. Cow dung, on the other hand, is rich in the stuff (because the cow’s stomach microbes have already gone to the trouble of fixing the nitrogen). So somehow, termites’ food sources may influence the capabilities of their guts. But how?

If we only looked at genomes, he said, we wouldn’t know that crows can use tools. We might not even realize they can fly! But with microbes, genomes are especially misleading because they don’t reveal two important things: behavior and structure. Trichomonas termopsidis, for example, processes wood in termites’ guts, but in a vagina its close relative Trichomonas vaginalis is an STD, eating vaginal secretions. The genomes of the two are similar enough that it would be difficult for scientists to understand how differently they act in the world.

Termite gut microbes coevolved with their termite carriers over time, swapping functions among the different organisms. The termites didn’t pick up new organisms; the termite and the gut microbes changed together. When their diets changed, it appeared that the termites could rebalance their gut portfolios without changing the list of inhabitants, only their relative numbers.

So the answer to the Rosetta stone question was that termites and microbes lived in deep symbiosis over millions of years, becoming inseparable. The amazingly wide numbers of genes doing similar things in the gut seemed to allow the partners to adjust to whatever the world threw at them.

While it was interesting to know how the termites and their bugs evolved, it was still an open question whether a system so tightly bound together, so self-regulating, could be disassembled to reliably produce products such as biofuels. The ability to swap genes and change behaviors has been key to the survival of the termites and their symbiotic fellow travelers, but they remain more like superorganisms (with all their cultish connotations) than gene-based computers.

The idea of the termite as a model for biofuels was pretty much dead, at least at this lab. Still, I wondered how scientists working on biofuels imagined we’d get the capabilities of termites—not to mention unlimited growth and solutions—from clots of microbes in stainless steel tanks.

As fire is a violent chemical process, metabolism is life’s very low flame. “We’re all basically burning very slowly.” When I asked to see what he meant, he showed me a flowchart of how the termite’s gut breaks down wood that looked like a map of the Tokyo subway system. Near the center was a loop with hundreds of subsidiary reactions hanging off the sides like intersecting train lines on the Yamanote Line. Among those interconnecting lines were the two different nitrogen cycles Phil and his crew came across during their jazz sessions, but they were just two tiny nodes in a vast network.

When I asked him what he thought about termites, he said it would take 20 years to understand them, and for now he needed to work on just a single organism—a nice tame E. coli, say, or a yeast.

The second thing that struck me was something that seemed ironic at first: we once worked mightily to figure out how to use natural gas to make fertilizer to grow crops, and now we’re laboring to do the opposite—turn plants into replacements for fossil fuels.

Nested inside the Mastotermes gut, though, is another amazing thing—a legendary protist named Mixotricha paradoxa: “the paradoxical being with mixed-up hairs.” Under a low-power microscope, M. paradoxa looks like a grenade with a bad case of shag carpet, and it was discovered and named by a Jean L. Sutherland in 1933. Under interrogation, however, M. paradoxa turns out to be five entirely different creatures, with five separate genomes, collaborating as one, like a bunch of kids crowded into a donkey suit.

She’d already found 32 new protist chimeras—each with multiple genomes—in Australian termite guts. Like Trichonympha, some of these protists were 100 times bigger than the bacteria in the termite’s guts.

The peculiar environmental conditions of the termite gut supported the evolution of their structure, behavior, and symbiotic relationships, many times over, in both similar and strange ways. How did the little flagellate make itself a hundred times bigger, enabling it to eat really big wood chips? The answer seems to be that it repeated its structural elements along a line of symmetry, as if bolting one IKEA bookshelf to the next until it had something the size of a library.

These odd marriages of protist and bacteria, then, are probably not snapshots from a former time when symbiogenesis was common, but very peculiar products of the futuristic junkyard of Australian termites’ guts.

In 2050, as the population of the planet peaks, we’ll need 60 percent more food than we currently grow to feed increasingly affluent people. And if synthetic biologists do manage to make grassoline, we’ll need to increase the amount of green stuff we grow per acre between two and three times.

 

One such MFB was limonene—a lemon-scented solvent that is normally made by squeezing the skins left over from orange juice processing. It could be used as a fuel or an industrial ingredient. Pinene can be combined with another molecule to create JP-10, an advanced rocket fuel that goes for $25 a gallon. Producing very high-priced chemicals for the military was one way to keep the lab alive long enough to find other biofuels.

Genomatica’s 1,4 butanediol (BDO), used in making Spandex and plastics. It apparently moonlights as a psychedelic drug. The field’s legitimate blockbuster was DuPont’s 1,3 propanediol, used in creating polyester, paints, and glues. Produced by a genetically altered E. coli that lives on corn syrup, by 2021 it’s expected to have sales of more than half a billion dollars a year. Both appear to be significantly better for the environment than the petrochemicals they replace. And a neat trick of turning corn syrup—often blamed for making us fat—into Spandex

Why was progress so slow? When I first started reporting on JBEI, in 2008, scientists talked regularly about booting up yeast and bacteria with new DNA as if they were computers.

The complexity in the labs’ test tubes suggested that the cells themselves had an agenda. As Héctor put it, “What we’re doing is taking a bug [like E. coli] with no interest in producing biofuels and forcing it to produce them by inserting a pathway in there.” The bug’s “interest”—whatever it was—resisted manipulation. Eventually JBEI scientists learned to disrupt the cell’s internal communications, or at least jam them, to keep the cell off-kilter.

The multiple ways that biology resisted engineering reminded Héctor of Carl Woese, his biologist/physicist inspiration, who had observed that, unlike an electron, a cell has a history. The engineering teams recognized that cell metabolism has memories that do not reside in DNA, but in some other network or way of storing information within the cell. Their whimsical resistance to producing grassoline resembled—in a remote way—the quirky, idiosyncratic responses of the termites in the roboticists’ petri dishes.

By 2016, the team’s work increased the output of fatty acids that could be used as fuels from that strain of E. coli by 40 % using a systematic approach that could be applied to other problems. And the metabolic map tool combined with protein databases had increased production of pinene by 200% and limonene by 40%. They weren’t anywhere near Craig Venter’s dream of a million percent, but they were ramping up.

Yet the big question of how the termite’s gut was different from a 500-gallon steel tank was still out there, and it was standing in the way of getting the biofuel the scientists needed. Once the lab got one of their “bugs” producing a chemical, scaling up 1000-fold—from a flask the size of an orange juice glass to one the size of a kitchen garbage can—production would crater. How did the “bugs” change their behavior? And why? If there is a meaning in the scale and relationship of one organism to the whole—as Corina’s work showed in the fields—it wasn’t yet known in the bioreactor.

Fail to mix a bioreactor evenly and they’d end up with uneven streaks of oxygen and glucose that could create 400-fold changes in production—making it a black box within a black box.

DROUGHT, nutrients, robustness

Macrotermes in that part of Kenya build most of their mound underground, so they look less like the fingers I saw in Namibia than like land with a case of chicken pox, with each bump of a mound situated 20 to 40 yards from other bumps on all sides. The closer he was to the center of the mound, the more geckos Rob found. So then he looked at the bunchgrass and the acacia trees. A similar pattern. It was as though the termites had organized the entire landscape from below into a large checkerboard of fertility.

Some part of termites’ influence had to do with nutrients: a team of scientists found that the soils in the mounds were much richer in nitrogen and phosphorus than those off the mounds, and as a result the trees and grasses were not only more abundant there, but also had more nitrogen in their leaves, making them more nutritious—and possibly even more delicious—to everyone eating them. The termites also moved sand particles, so water behaved differently on the mounds.

Corina discovered that when grass was associated with a termite mound, it could survive on very little water, much less than expected. In the simplest terms, termite mounds made the landscape much more drought resistant.

Theoretical models from the mid-2000s predicted that when these dry land systems crashed, they wouldn’t gradually dry up but would instead progress from a labyrinth pattern of grass to spots, and then basically fall off a cliff (called a “critical transition”) to become desert.  But when Corina adjusted the rainfall in the model to produce the labyrinth of plants that might precede a crash, she found that when a landscape had termite mounds, the crash occurred very slowly—it was not a cliff but a staircase. What this meant was that places with termite mounds were much less likely to become desert, and if they did, they were likely to recover when rains reappeared.

Termites, then, appeared to increase the robustness of the whole place, in addition to providing homes for the geckos and food for the elephants. And with dry lands making up about 40 % of the world, and climate change redistributing rainfall, termites might actually be saving the planet. For real.

The idea that termites could be competing so strongly that they create patterns while making the ecosystem less likely to collapse? It’s a hard hump to get over.

Australia Aborigine view of the world

Paperbark can be boiled and used for colds, she said. I prepared myself for a mini lecture on ethnobotany but we were quickly into some kind of cosmology, with a cascade of identifications, each leading to some new point in time and space. There was the yellow acacia flower, and when it’s out the oysters in the bay are fat. The pandamus grass can be used to make a basket. And here, under the leaf litter, is a grass with bright red roots that can be used for dyeing pandamus for baskets. When a shrub with red waxy flowers blooms, the sharks are fat and ready to eat in a nearby bay. And when the stringybark eucalyptus flowers, the honey will be ready inside the trees.

Everything here is relational to everything else and then interconnected, until the forest is a giant Internet leading to stories, lore, law, medicine, and fat delicious sharks.

There were other associations: the honey is related in some ways to the sea in the songlines and to the character Wuyal the “honeybag man,” but she thinks I might be interested in it because the termites hollow out the trees where the honey is found.

The songlines, he said, start from the horizon of the ocean, with the clouds breaking and the sun rising and setting. They talk about individual trees and plants and animals both at sea and on land. They talk about the stringybark trees. “We see what’s been sung in the sea and on land and that becomes how we manage the land,” he said. “But these feral [invasive] weeds are not in the songlines. The crazy ants are not nor the buffalo pigs or the coastal gnats.

Some termite facts

  • The word superorganism is used 39 times in this book.
  • They’re related to roaches.
  • With the shipment of goods and munitions around the world after the war, the Formosan subterranean termite was transplanted from Asia to Louisiana and other southern U.S. states and began to spread in massive supercolonies.
  • 11 pounds of termites can move about 364 pounds of dirt in a year.
  • Namibian farmers estimate that every Macrotermes mound—which contains just 11 pounds of termites—eats as much dead grass as a 900-pound cow.
  • Only 28 out of 2800 termite species are invasive pests.
  • Darwin Australia: By 2070, more than 300 days a year are expected to be over 95 degrees, up from eleven days. In this area, 80 percent of the eucalyptus trees here in the north were hollow, eaten by termites. Once hollowed out, the trees burn differently. The tops fall off and flames shoot out the top, and the trees also produce different gases,
  • One possible way to use nanobots in war is giving them orders to execute combatants based on whether they have certain DNA.
  • In southern Florida the human process of urbanization has led to the spread of two invasive termites (Coptotermes formosans and C. gestroi). But climate change has made the timing of the two species’ nuptial flights sync up. Recently, males of one species started preferring females of the other species to those of their own. Now the two species have begun to hybridize, forming colonies that grow at twice the speed of either of the originals, with individuals that researchers describe as potential “super-termites.
  • Twelve of the thirteen most invasive termite species are likely to spread, meaning you’ll soon have new neighbors, too.
  • Termite mounds only need to stay whole 51% of the time to survive.

 

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