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Environ Microbiol. 2005 Jul;7(7):916-32.

Niche heterogeneity determines bacterial community structure in the termite gut (Reticulitermes santonensis).

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Fachbereich Biologie, Mikrobielle Okologie, Universit├Ąt Konstanz, 78457 Konstanz, Germany.


Differences in microenvironment and interactions of microorganisms within and across habitat boundaries should influence structure and diversity of the microbial communities within an ecosystem. We tested this hypothesis using the well characterized gut tract of the European subterranean termite Reticulitermes santonensis as a model. By cloning and sequencing analysis and molecular fingerprinting (terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism), we characterized the bacterial microbiota in the major intestinal habitats - the midgut, the wall of the hindgut paunch, the hindgut fluid and the intestinal protozoa. The bacterial community was very diverse (> 200 ribotypes) and comprised representatives of several phyla, including Firmicutes (mainly clostridia, streptococci and Mycoplasmatales-related clones), Bacteroidetes, Spirochaetes and a number of Proteobacteria, all of which were unevenly distributed among the four habitats. The largest group of clones fell into the so-called Termite group 1 (TG-1) phylum, which has no cultivated representatives. The majority of the TG-1 clones were associated with the protozoa and formed two phylogenetically distinct clusters, which consisted exclusively of clones previously retrieved from the gut of this and other Reticulitermes species. Also the other clones represented lineages of microorganisms that were exclusively recovered from the intestinal tract of termites. The termite specificity of these lineages was underscored by the finding that the closest relatives of the bacterial clones obtained from R. santonensis were usually derived also from the most closely related termites. Overall, differences in diversity between the different gut habitats and the uneven distribution of individual phylotypes support conclusively that niche heterogeneity is a strong determinant of the structure and spatial organization of the microbial community in the termite gut.

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