Termites are notable insects for a variety of reasons. For instance, termites have the ability to digest cellulose from plant matter, many termite species can build nesting mounds that reach up to 30 feet in height, and these mounds are constructed in a manner that allows the internal climate to be manipulated. Amazingly, some termite species sustain themselves by cultivating their own fungal crops as a food source, and queen termites have the longest lifespans of any type of insect. While worker and soldier termites of any species almost never live beyond five years, a queen’s lifespan ranges from 15 to 50 years, depending on the species. Given their unusually long lifespan for an insect, researchers are studying termite queens in order to better understand the science behind aging.
Recent advances in scientific technology are allowing researchers to better understand how and which genes are responsible for certain human attributes and behaviors. Researchers believe that the process of aging can be accounted for with genetic science, and when it comes to choosing an animal model for a genetic study concerning aging, termite queens are ideal. Researchers have found that almost all organisms, including humans and termites, produce certain antioxidant enzymes that regulate oxidative metabolism. Oxidative metabolism is basically the physiological process of aging, and it determines an organism’s longevity. This metabolic process produces “reactive oxygen species” (ROS), which oxidizes cells, and therefore, contributes to aging. However, most organisms regulate the production of ROS by producing an antioxidant enzyme called “superoxide dismutases” (SODs). SODs promote an organism’s longevity. Not surprisingly, when comparing termite workers and soldiers with their queens, it was found that queens produce significantly more SODs than their worker and soldier offspring. The relatively higher SOD activity in queen termites promotes their impressive longevity by inhibiting the production of ROS, and it explains why the lifespan of a queen termite is generally ten times longer than their non-reproductive offspring.
Do you believe that the study of termite queen longevity will lead to genetic therapies that can reduce the rate of aging in humans?