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Farmer termites bury invaders alive to protect fungus farms

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farmer sprinkles fertilizer

Kolkata, Oct 1 (Mongabay/IANS) Termites are often a nightmare in human habitats, devouring wooden structures and ravaging crops and trees. But within their own homes, some of these farmer termites have sneaky tricks for pest control. The pests in question are an unwelcome variety of fungi that infiltrate the termite nest mounds.

Seemingly innocuous and tiny, termites that farm beneficial fungus (Odontotermes obesus) in their nest mounds, have a pretty disquieting practice to defend their fungal farms from invasion of weedy, parasitic fungi (Pseudoxylaria). Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, have documented that these blind insects sniff out the infiltrant in their mounds and selectively bury them alive.

This behaviour, reported by Renee Borges’s lab at the institute, also has implications for agricultural practices.

“Fungus-farming termites grow a fungus, Termitomyces, in carbon dioxide-rich environments of their nest mounds. In order to maintain a sustainable supply of cultivated fungi, termites must control weedy parasitic fungi and make sure that such fungi do not grow inside their nests,” Borges told Mongabay-India.

The live burial creates an oxygen-deficient environment locally (hypoxia) in the vicinity of the parasitic fungus which affects their survival. “The burying behaviour, directed primarily at the parasitic weed, is coupled with antifungal activity which, in part, appears to be due to the effect of local hypoxic conditions,” the study said.

Several fungus-growing termite species build mounds, or termitaria, that are conspicuous features of African and Asian landscapes. Odontotermes obesus, belonging to the Macrotermitinae subfamily, is a major mound-building termite found across the Indian subcontinent.

Mound-building Macrotermitinae termites are major ecosystem engineers in the tropics and subtropics and maintain fungal gardens of Termitomyces, in their massive nest mounds, which are like organised greenhouses.

The termites offer a protected environment for the Termitomyces fungus to thrive while, in turn, the fungus is an important food resource for the insects. Essentially, the wood-eating termites “outsource” lignin (a component of wood) breakdown to the farmed fungus.

Interestingly, healthy fungal gardens of farmer termites are devoid of the weedy fungus Pseudoxylaria.

“It is amazing how natural colonies of fungus-growing termites seem to be able to control Pseudoxylaria: We have done many experiments with fungus gardens. In the absence of termites, very quickly those are completely overgrown with Pseudoxylaria, just in a few days,” observed Duur Aanen, evolutionary geneticist at the Netherlands’ Wageningen University. “…Nevertheless, in the presence of the termites, those fungi are never seen, so apparently the termites suppress them.”

When the weedy fungus invades termite mounds, they take advantage of the same carbon sources and grow faster than the crop fungi, thereby competing with Termitomyces (crop fungi) for nutrition, said Borges. Therefore, as soon as the termites sniff out the presence of the weedy fungus, they act to nip the problem in the bud.

In a matter of minutes, it is game over for the weedy parasitic fungus.

“The termites make a ball of soil, carry it in their mandible and round it up with saliva and dump the ball on the parasitic mass. This behaviour of termites to bury live fungi is in contrast to humans who bury dead bodies,” Borges said.

This also explains why Pseudoxylaria grows within the termite mound environment only in the absence of contact with termites. For example, in mounds abandoned by termites or when incubated within termite-proof enclosures within active mounds that allow circulation of mound air, said Borges.

“These studies very clearly show that like human farmers, fungus-farming termites have developed methods to control crop weeds and to protect their crops from parasitic attack,” she said.

While chemical antifungal compounds have been reported in termite farms, live burial per se as an antifungal activity has never been investigated. To probe this dimension, the researchers carried out laboratory experiments using a locally prevalent fungus-farming termite, Odontotermes obesus, as their model system.

They offered farmer termites minuscule amounts of fungi in small petri-dishes filled with garden soil. When the researchers arrived in their laboratory next morning, they found that worker termites had buried the weedy fungus with soil completely.

However, what surprised the researchers the most, were the results of their next investigation. “We found that this live burial of fungi by worker termites led to greater decrease in the survival of the weedy fungus compared to the crop fungus, even after controlling for the varying amount of soil deposition,” Borges observed.

But was this decline in weed survival due to localised lack of oxygen (hypoxia) generated by the burial process?

To answer this, the researchers designed an artificial burial experiment. They mimicked the termite behaviour of burying the fungi by covering the fungi in small enclosures. This enabled the researchers to look at the effect of hypoxia alone on the fungal survival.

Their experiments with artificial burial revealed that, in the absence of chemical factors such as fungicides, weed survival is indeed negatively affected by the resulting hypoxia alone.

“Our results show that fungus-growing termites bury the weedy Pseudoxylaria to a significantly greater extent than the Termitomyces crop which results in relatively lowered survival of the former compared to the latter,” the study said.

In fact, any Pseudoxylaria sprouting inside a termite mound will experience hypoxia not only due to burying but also because of the hypoxic surroundings, since mounds are known to have high (but variable) ambient carbon dioxide levels.

“We cannot rule out the additional presence of antifungal chemicals in the burial materials. It is also possible that antibiotic-producing bacteria and their products are deposited along with soil on the weedy fungi. Thus, further studies using soil deposited by termite workers to isolate antifungal compounds are warranted and are underway,” Borges said.

(In arrangement with Mongabay.com, a source for environmental news reporting and analysis. The views expressed in the article are those of Mongabay.com. Feedback: [email protected])

Analysis

The US presidential elections and future of India-US relations

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Donald Trump Joe Biden

As the coronavirus pandemic dominates global news in the United States, progress toward the next presidential election scheduled to be held on November 3 moves slowly forward. President Donald Trump had no real opposition in the Republican party and is running for re-election. And it has now become apparent that former Vice President Joe Biden will be his opponent as the Democratic candidate for president.

What would a Trump victory bode for the future of US-India relations? What would a Biden victory bode? Let me answer each of those questions in turn.

Given the love fests of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Texas, in which Trump participated in September of 2019, and Trump’s ‘Namaste Trump’ event hosted by Modi in India in February of this year, it might be assumed that the future for US-India relations is a splendid one. This would be an incorrect assumption.

Both of these events were more symbolic than substantive. Trump’s participation in them undoubtedly helped to persuade some — perhaps many — Indian American Modi supporters who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to cast their ballots for Trump in 2020. Trump’s campaign team took steps to ensure this by holding an event at his Mar-a-Lago resort in which a group of prominent Indian Americans announced their plans to work for his re-election and to mobilize Indian Americans on his behalf.

To understand the future potential of India’s relations with the US. with Trump as president, however, it is necessary to look beyond these political moves and to examine the present state of those relations and Trump’s personal style.

In a word, the best way to characterize the current relations between the US and India is “functional”. The relationship was relatively good for the first two years of Trump’s presidency. In fact, near the end of 2018, Alice Wells, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, was quoted in the media s saying: “This has been a landmark year for US-India ties as we build out stronger relationships across the board.”

Then, in 2019, the relations went off the track in the first half of the year after the US and India got into a tit-for-tat tariff war after the US terminated India’s Generalized System of Preferences which allowed India to send certain goods to the US duty-free. There have been continuing efforts to structure a “modest” trade deal since then. It was thought there might be some type of deal done in September of 2019 while Modi was in the US by year’s end, and then during Trump’s India visit. But, as of today, there is still no deal.

This inability to get any meaningful trade agreement in place speaks volumes about India’s potential future relations with India with Trump as president. So, too does Trump’s style.

Trump’s campaign slogans this time around are “Keep America Great” and “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” Trump is not a policy wonk and most of his effort will go toward “America First”. This involves making the US more isolated by withdrawing from international agreements, restructuring trade agreements, emphasizing building walls to stop immigrants at the border, using tariffs to block trade with countries who are taking away American jobs, and confronting businesses who are allegedlly stealing American trade secrets.

This perspective suggests what India can expect for its relations with the US if it has to deal with Trump for a second term as president. The relations will stay functional at best. As I have said before, that’s because the words partnership, cooperation and collaboration are not in Trump’s vocabulary. Nationalism, isolationism and protectionism are.

Joe Biden stands in stark contrast to President Trump both professionally and personally. Biden is a strategic thinker and doer with a solid eight-year track record of leadership experience as Vice-President in forging alliances that have made a difference around the world and he has also been a long-standing friend of India.

He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate for the Congressional passage of the Indo-US civic nuclear deal in 2005. At a dinner convened 10 years later in 2015 by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Biden discussed the tremendous joint progress that had been made by the two countries in the past and declared “We are on the cusp of a sea change decade.”

Early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in July of 2019, in laying out his foreign policy vision, Biden stated that the US had to reach out to India and other Asian partners to strengthen ties with them. The items on Biden’s foreign policy agenda for strengthening which are of importance for India include climate change, nuclear proliferation and cyberwarfare.

During his vice presidency, Biden worked side by side with President Barack Obama to do things that would contribute to achieving Obama’s vision stated in 2010 of India and America being “indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time.” In 2020, those challenges are even greater than they were a decade ago.

That is why it is so essential that India and the US develop a strategic relationship that enables them to become those indispensable partners. That can happen if Biden assumes the presidency on January 20, 2021. It cannot happen if Donald Trump remains as president for a second term.

The results of this upcoming election in the US matter greatly for the future of the United States. They matter greatly for the future of India-US relations as well. Time and the American electorate will tell what that future will be.

(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)

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Analysis

Covid-19 toll across world crosses 35,000

The COVID-19 is affecting 132 countries and territories around the world.

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Patients infected with the novel coronavirus

New Delhi, March 30 : The death toll around the world due to coronavirus crossed 35,000 on Monday evening, with Italy heading the list of 35,097 deaths with 10,779, while the number of cumulative cases rose to 737,929, with US leading with 143,055 of them, as per data from the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

Spain was second with 7,340 deaths, followed by China with 3,308 (3,186 of them in Hubei where the outbreak was first recorded), Iran with 2,757 deaths, France with 2,606 deaths, the US with 2,513 (776 of them in New York) and the UK with1,228 deaths.

In number of cases, Italy was second with 97,689, followed by Spain with 85,195, China with 82,198, Germany with 62,435, Iran with 41,495 and France with 40,747.

Meanwhile, 156,652 people around the world had recovered, with nearly half of them (75,923) in China, followed by 16,780 in Spain, 13,911 in Iran and 13,030 in Italy.

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Analysis

45% of Indians do not back up their data, files: Survey

The survey was conducted among 728 Avast and AVG users between February 20-March 25.

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Data Privacy

New Delhi, March 30 : Nearly half of Indians do not back up because they think their data or files are not important enough and most of those who back up their data, do it once a month, a survey said on Monday.

Other reasons cited by the respondents for not backing up their data included not knowing how to do it, not having time and forgetting about it, according to the survey by cybersecurity company Avast.

“It could be that many aren’t aware they are backing up, as it could be happening automatically, in the background, however, others really might not be backing up at all, thinking it is not worth it,” Luis Corrons, Security Evangelist at Avast, said in a statement.

“Losing personal documents, photos and videos can be a painful experience and it’s not until this happens that they realize how valuable it actually is,” Corrons added.

Of those who do back up their data, nearly 42 per cent Indians back up to a cloud storage, 36 42 per cent back up their data to an external hard drive, 23 42 per cent back up to a USB or flash disk, 18 42 per cent back up their phone to their PC, and 10 42 per cent back up to a network storage drive, the results showed.

Corrons recommended to back up data to two different locations, like the cloud, and a physical storage, like an external hard drive.

When it comes to iPhone and Android phone owners, the percentage that backs up is nearly the same, 69 per cent and 70 per cent respectively.

The percentage of smartphone owners that don’t know how to back up their data does not vary much between iPhone and Android owners, with 13 per cent and 17 per cent claiming not knowing how to, respectively, the study revealed.

Data loss can be caused by users accidentally deleting their data themselves, hardware damage and failure, as well as malware, causing valuable data such as photos, videos, documents, and messages to be lost forever.

Ransomware and other malware, such as wipers, can either encrypt or completely destroy files, and there is no guarantee that files can be decrypted if a ransom is paid.

The survey was conducted among 728 Avast and AVG users between February 20-March 25.

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