Vertical transmission of cellulolytic protists in termites is imperfect, but sufficient, due to biparental transmission

Joseph F. Velenovsky, Francesca De Martini, Jonathon T. Hileman, Johnalyn M. Gordon, Nan Yao Su, Gillian H. Gile, Thomas Chouvenc

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Many host-symbiont relationships are maintained through vertical transmission. While maternal symbiont transmission is common, biparental transmission is relatively rare. Protist-dependent termites are eusocial insects that harbor obligate, cellulolytic protists in their hindguts. Protists are vertically transmitted by winged reproductives (alates), which disperse to biparentally establish new colonies. Vertical transmission in protist-dependent termites is imperfect, as the protist communities of alates are often incomplete. Biparental transmission of protists may make it unnecessary for alates to harbor complete communities, as colonies would acquire symbionts from both founding kings and queens, which together may harbor sufficient inoculums. To investigate this hypothesis, the protist communities of Coptotermes gestroi and C. formosanus alates and colonies were examined using 18S rRNA amplicon sequencing. The complete protist communities of these Coptotermes species are composed of five parabasalid species each. Whereas alates often harbored 1–3 protist species, nearly all colonies harbored 4–5 species, implying biparental transmission. The probability of each protist species being present in at least one founding alate was used to determine expected protist occurrence in colonies. For most protists, expected and observed occurrence did not significantly differ, suggesting that each protist species only needs to be harbored by one founding alate to be acquired by colonies. Our results imply that biparental transmission allows founding reproductives to transmit adequate symbiont communities to colonies despite their individual communities being incomplete. We discuss biparental transmission in protist-dependent termites in the context of other biparentally transmitted symbioses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)25-38
Number of pages14
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2023


  • Flagellates
  • Microbiome
  • Protozoa
  • Social insects
  • Subterranean termites

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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