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PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e27578. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027578. Epub 2011 Nov 8.

Distribution of metals in the termite Tumulitermes tumuli (Froggatt): two types of Malpighian tubule concretion host Zn and Ca mutually exclusively.

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CSIRO Earth Science and Resource Engineering, Perth, Australia.


The aim of this study was to determine specific distribution of metals in the termite Tumulitermes tumuli (Froggatt) and identify specific organs within the termite that host elevated metals and therefore play an important role in the regulation and transfer of these back into the environment. Like other insects, termites bio-accumulate essential metals to reinforce cuticular structures and utilize storage detoxification for other metals including Ca, P, Mg and K. Previously, Mn and Zn have been found concentrated in mandible tips and are associated with increased hardness whereas Ca, P, Mg and K are accumulated in Malpighian tubules. Using high resolution Particle Induced X-Ray Emission (PIXE) mapping of whole termites and Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) Energy Dispersive X-ray (EDX) spot analysis, localised accumulations of metals in the termite T. tumuli were identified. Tumulitermes tumuli was found to have proportionally high Mn concentrations in mandible tips. Malpighian tubules had significant enrichment of Zn (1.6%), Mg (4.9%), P (6.8%), Ca (2.7%) and K (2.4%). Synchrotron scanning X-ray Fluorescence Microprobe (XFM) mapping demonstrated two different concretion types defined by the mutually exclusive presence of Ca and Zn. In-situ SEM EDX realisation of these concretions is problematic due to the excitation volume caused by operating conditions required to detect minor amounts of Zn in the presence of significant amounts of Na. For this reason, previous researchers have not demonstrated this surprising finding.

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