1 Oct 2018

Termite technology: robots, architecture, biofuels - Lisa Margonelli's 'Underbug'

From Afternoons, 3:09 pm on 1 October 2018

Termites' abilities to turn timber into food and build towering mounds might help us develop biofuels, construction robots, housing design hacks and microbe technology, author Lisa Margonelli says.

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Photo: Screenshot

The insects get a bad reputation thanks to their unfortunate appetite for things like wood, books and even bank notes.

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Photo: Supplied

They may be hard to love, but journalist Margonelli's new book Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology shows they are fascinating, easy to admire, and could teach us much.

She says she first got interested in termites when reporting on biofuels and came across a research team including New Zealander Phil Hugenholtz who were exploring termites' gut microbiology.

"Wood is very very hard to break down, the sugars are sort of locked in cages of cellulose, so termite guts are basically like a molecular wrecking yard," she says.

"There are all these different microbes in there and they produce enzymes and the enzymes kind of go up to the edge of the wood and they pry off these different combinations of substances and then they do different things to it in the termite gut."

She says she did a story on it and Hugenholtz invited her on a "termite safari".

"So I went out to Arizona in the US and looked for termites in the desert and when I actually found some I was pretty much blown away.

"They were so weird and so small and cryptic … were they one bug - when I was holding up one they were really tiny and insignificant - or were they like part of a superorganism? Or did you have to think of them as being all of the bugs together as a superorganism plus all of their microbes like a super-duper-organism?"

Guts and glory: Termite evolution

She says termites are closely related to cockroaches, but their diet meant that they became more social - while cockroaches eat fruit, lay eggs and let their young look after themselves termites began to eat wood.

Asian Subterranean Termites

 Asian Subterranean Termites. Photo: Facebook

"They could eat wood if they could pick up some microbes that could help them digest … but the problem is cockroaches moult their intestines pretty frequently.

"They just started eating each others' poo right out of each others' butts. So they basically then were pooling their digestion.

"Behaviour and genetic changes made them more and more social, so they pooled their reproduction too so that the queen and the king do all the reproducing.

"They pool their immunity - they have soldiers who repel invaders - and they build their structures which also helped them.

Queens and the mound mind

Margonelli says termites have a deeply organised social hierarchy, and it's pretty hard to get your head around how interdependent they are.

Queen Elizabeth II

Termite queens were named that because scientists analysing them were from monarchies themselves and apparently assumed the social structures were the same.  Photo: Julian Calder CC 4.0

"It's hard to even watch them … if you put 20 termites in a dish - in a little petri dish or something - they will act really differently than if you put 50 or 100.

"Whenever they're surrounded by more of their likenesses they behave differently depending on how many of them are around them.

"They're constantly feeding each other water and .. they run their mouth parts over each others legs. They stroke each other with their antennae, they're constantly doing stuff with each other.

"They make sounds all the time, they make different clicking noises … the queen communicates through pheromones but the termites themselves all have a distinctive coding on their exoskeleton that gives them a distinctive smell that shows who they are to their colony."

"It does appear that they have the ability in the way that they communicate with each other they have some ability as a group to think - so they have sort of group cognition.

"It's not the way we think, probably, but you could start going down that path you realise we don't really know how we think … the deeper you get into what that termite brain means, the more you start to wonder about what the human brain is."

She says termites have a 'queen' but their social structure was labelled that way because they were named and analysed by naturalists from the European monarchies.

"The naturalists who looked into these mounds said 'oh it's just like where I live, there's a queen and there's a king and there's soldiers .. and then there's like a worker class who must toil and toil forever'.

"So when they saw it they were like 'see, nature had intended for there to be aristocracy and kings.

"And for 150 years when they looked at [termite] queens they thought they were 'kings', because that was the case in human monarchies."

The queen has a somewhat bizarre life.

"After she's had her little flight when she hooks up with a king … they break off their wings together and they crawl into a hole in the ground and that's where the're going to be for maybe the next 20 years.

"Frequently they'll bite off the ends of their antennas ... they're getting less stimulus, which is kind of what you'd want if you're going to spend the next 20 years in a hole with five million of your own children."

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Photo: Public Domain

Then the queen starts having her babies - laying an egg every couple of seconds.

"Her whole body has got kind of distended, and there are these little black things on it that are kind of the remains of her exoskeleton just clinging to it like a bit of old tape.

"You can see through her skin - it's translucent and it's kind of swirling ... reminds me a little bit of when you pour cream into coffee ... but she also pulses on either side of her body.

"It is something, you look at it and almost everybody gets a little sick feeling."

'Grassoline': Biofuel technology

Margonelli says progress has been made in the technology that first got her interested and inspired to write her book: biofuels.

Freight train with biofuel tankcars

Photo: 123RF

"We would like to break down cellulose and get the sugars that are locked into the cellulose … we would like to do that and then we could take wood scraps and paper scraps and corn stalks and all sorts of debris and turn that into fuel and use that to replace fossil fuels with some benefit to the planet.

"In the very beginning ... the researchers ended up taking the enzymes from the termite's gut and then trying them on wood and seeing what worked and then using those in some more complicated biotechnology schemes to make fuel."

She says they ultimately decided that the termite was a little too complicated, and the digestive system is one that won't be able to be copied or properly understood for maybe another 10 years.

"It inspired them to find simpler systems for breaking down cellulose like you might find in a compost pile."

However, the termite systems are still being studied, and the labs are optimistic.

"They now can make a couple of kinds of biofuels that are very sophisticated - they're not cheap enough to be 'grassoline' but they also work for really specialised applications.

"I just talked to one of the people, one of the researchers two days ago and he's actually quite hopeful that they will soon have a form of grassoline."

Construction robots and termite mound architecture

Margonelli says there's more to learn from termites than just biofuel though. For instance, different species build different types of mounds.

The 'magnetic' termite mounds, like the Cathedral mound in Lichfield, point north.

The 'magnetic' termite mounds, like the Cathedral mound in Lichfield, point north. Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

"There's some in Namibia in Africa that the mound seems to act like a lung."

"It sticks up into the winds that are flowing above the ground and it ... allows the air to diffuse inside and then that affects the warm area down below where the termites are."

There are also what are called "magnetic" termite mounds in Australia that always point north.

"Those mounds seem to really affect the temperature inside the nest and they keep it cooler when it's really hot and keep it warmer when it's really cold and they also provide a space for termites to run up into when the floodwaters rise around those areas.

"It's not an apartment building - it's purely function, it's like plumbing and heating and everything else."

Architects and designers could look at those aspects for inspiration in human buildings, but there is also effort going into using termites' construction abilities.

Margonelli says a team at Harvard led by Radhika Nagpal have been working on creating robots called 'Termes' based on termites, which can build autonomously.

"They could actually build different shapes … and they also work on swarming technologies."

She says the termites are being looked at for developing robotic technology, because "they can build enormous mounds without any sort of master plan".

"[Scientists] hope by watching termites they can figure out what kind of rules the individual termites follow to construct that result in the big mound."

There's some difficulty and a way to go yet, however.

"Robots are not termites and robots … don't think like humans. It's a very simple machine that follows where they try to simplify the choices that the machine has to a very high degree - there's a lot of abstraction in the design."

Microbes, metaphor and technologies of scale

She says the biofuel research and the robotics are just one way that the world is changing - moving from industrial monolithic machines to small technologies.

"There's a really interesting paradox about microbes and termites which is that the power is not at the top, the power is irrational and it's right down at the bottom and we don't know where it comes from," she says.

Escherichia coli - one of the many species of bacteria present in the human gut

 Escherichia coli - one of the many species of bacteria present in the human gut Photo: Public domain

"We have a lot more genes in our personal digestive guts than we do in our bodies - so when you think you want some chips or some coffee or a beer, maybe it's just your gut microbes telling you what to do."

While there's a lot of research going into microbes and the human microbiome, Margonelli says she also sees that change in power as an allegory for the next stage of human technology.

More about microbiomes:
  • The importance of the microbiome
  • A banquet that's good for your gut health
  • Your microbiome and brain health
  • Exploring the Microbiome
  • "In the 20th century we kind of harnessed forces of nature, like hydroelectric dams and oil wells and we pulled all theses things together in big centralised ways.

    "Now what we want is ... decentralised power, we want to use tiny forces, we want to use microbes and … to use tiny robots to build things in a decentralised way."

    "What happens when you start moving that decentralised irrational power into our technology, who gets to call the shots and how do we decide what's right?

    "I think these are really big questions for the next century and this technology that's really just getting started now, but if you look closely at it you can see what the implications are and you can see what sort of moral choices we're going to have to make."