Molecular insights into the evolution of woody plant decay in the gut of termites

Sci Adv. 2023 May 24;9(21):eadg1258. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.adg1258. Epub 2023 May 24.


Plant cell walls represent the most abundant pool of organic carbon in terrestrial ecosystems but are highly recalcitrant to utilization by microbes and herbivores owing to the physical and chemical barrier provided by lignin biopolymers. Termites are a paradigmatic example of an organism's having evolved the ability to substantially degrade lignified woody plants, yet atomic-scale characterization of lignin depolymerization by termites remains elusive. We report that the phylogenetically derived termite Nasutitermes sp. efficiently degrades lignin via substantial depletion of major interunit linkages and methoxyls by combining isotope-labeled feeding experiments and solution-state and solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Exploring the evolutionary origin of lignin depolymerization in termites, we reveal that the early-diverging woodroach Cryptocercus darwini has limited capability in degrading lignocellulose, leaving most polysaccharides intact. Conversely, the phylogenetically basal lineages of "lower" termites are able to disrupt the lignin-polysaccharide inter- and intramolecular bonding while leaving lignin largely intact. These findings advance knowledge on the elusive but efficient delignification in natural systems with implications for next-generation ligninolytic agents.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carbon
  • Ecosystem*
  • Isoptera* / genetics
  • Lignin
  • Wood


  • Lignin
  • Carbon