As an evolutionary biologist, Dino McMahon researches the immune systems of termites in order to find a non-toxic wood preservative

As an evolutionary biologist, Dino McMahon researches the immune systems of termites in order to find a non-toxic wood preservative

Source: BAM, photo: Michael Danner

Biologist Prof. Dr. Dino McMahon is exploring a way to stop wood-destroying termites without poison: using a glucose molecule..

Dr. McMahon, down here in BAM’s humid and warm basement lies a real kingdom for you. Why?

It houses excellent termite colonies – probably the best stock in the world. Some strains are very old. This is great news to an entomologist.

What are your plans?

I have full access to the funds. There are nearly 30 species of termites behind these iron doors, which is great. For example, my Ph.D. student and I take a few animals from a certain strain and observe in detail how they interact with each other.

You’re researching the social behaviour? Isn’t curbing the voracity of termites the priority?

Yes, that is exactly what we want. But we’re trying a completely new approach. So far, termites have only been fought with pesticides. Wood preservatives contain these poisons. BAM keeps many termites anyway, to verify the effectiveness of these preservatives. As evolutionary biologists we are now trying to proceed without poison. We disturb the immune system of the animals with a glucose derivative molecule GDL.

What does GDL do?

It fits exactly into a particular protein in a receptor of the termite’s immune system. This protein is crucial for the termites because it determines the immune system of an entire colony. Termites build it into their nests. We experiment with small groups to which we add animals that are infected with the immune blocker GDL. We then keep track of what the group does. We now know that there are many changes in behaviour. There are many indications that the termites will weaken and die.

So we’re talking about a purely ecological pest control...

...and a truly big gain for the environment. It would prevent poisons from wood preservatives from reaching the soil. After all, the termites’ eating drive is strongest when they stay underground. Wood components are heavily treated because they must be particularly well protected. We are close to achieving this without pesticides and biocides.

Would this also be a cost-effective option?

Definitely. I am researching the topic until at least until 2020, while I’m a junior professor at BAM and the Berlin Freie Universität (Berlin Free University). We are undertaking a first major field test at the moment also here in the basement: We buried one piece of wood in each of 36 separate beds, each protected with GDL in different ways. 1000 termites of different species are in each bed. We observe the developments for ten months. We had to bring in wild termite colonies especially from France as there were not enough animals available for such a large project, even here.