It’s sur­prising how much havoc the tiny ter­mite can wreak. Each year infes­ta­tions of these insects cause an esti­mated $30 bil­lion in damage to build­ings and crops nation­wide. His­tor­i­cally, home­owners and plan­ta­tion farmers have resorted to using harmful chem­ical pes­ti­cides to kill off the pests, but new research out of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity may soon change that.

Rebeca Rosen­gaus, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of biology at North­eastern, along with former North­eastern post­doc­toral fellow Mark Bulmer and a team of MIT researchers, has dis­cov­ered an envi­ron­men­tally friendly method of pest control.

Rosen­gaus and her col­leagues found that the sugar ana­logue glu­cono delta-​​lactone (GDL), a nat­u­rally occur­ring food addi­tive, inhibits ter­mites’ immu­nity against path­o­genic microor­gan­isms that typ­i­cally col­o­nize ter­mite nests.

The key to unlocking GDL’s pest-​​control poten­tial lay in uncov­ering how ter­mites remain disease-​​free while living in bac­teria– and fungus-​​ridden nests. The answer, researchers found, was due in part to the pro­tec­tive effect of a spe­cific type of pro­tein, known as gram-​​negative bac­teria binding pro­teins (GNBPs), present in ter­mite saliva and fecal matter. GNBPs, it turns out, destroy fungus and bacteria.

The addi­tion of GDL, how­ever, inhibits the fungus-​​fighting pro­teins from working their magic. Ter­mites exposed to the glu­cose deriv­a­tive suc­cumb to dis­ease much faster than those who aren’t.

All ter­mites fed GDL died five days after expo­sure to a fungus, whereas the con­trol showed roughly 70 per­cent sur­vival 12 days post-​​fungal infec­tion,” Rosen­gaus says of the lab-​​test results.

The find­ings could usher in a new wave of pest con­trol, she notes—one that could replace the toxic approach used for the past sev­eral decades. This is good news for the health of ani­mals, humans and the envi­ron­ment. “It has been found that toxic com­pounds are bad for the envi­ron­ment and bad for human health,” Rosen­gaus explains. “They have a very long half-​​life; they can also leech into the water with poten­tial harmful effects to other ani­mals, including humans.”

GDL is a simple, cost-​​effective mol­e­cule,” she explains fur­ther. “It’s biodegrad­able, so it’s not loading the envi­ron­ment with nasty chemicals.”

She is hopeful that her team’s method of pest con­trol will hold up in fur­ther field studies, espe­cially in urban areas where ter­mites are a par­tic­ular problem.

We’re far away from saying this is the future of pest con­trol, but it seems a very appealing alter­na­tive strategy,” she says.

The research was funded in part by Rosen­gaus’ 2005 National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion Early Career Award of more than $500,000. The find­ings were reported in the June 8 issue of the Pro­ceed­ings of the National Academy of Sciences.