Bug Blog

What Do Termites And Cells Have In Common?

There are tons of fascinating patterns in nature. You will see plants grow in beautiful spirals, animals with dotted or striped furs, and insects building and operating giant colonies. All of these patterns emerge without a blueprint, and what’s interesting is that this phenomenon is present everywhere in nature, all the way down to the cellular levels. For example, during embryonic development, cells organize themselves in patterns that will change and adapt to environmental cues.

Termite colonies operate in a similar way. You have thousands of termites that work without any top down organization, and they are able to build colonies, find food sources, protect the colony and live as part of a collective without any internal conflict.

Researchers have shown that a similar dynamic is present in cells that will spontaneously create structures from out-of-equilibrium cells that are in an energized state. When compared to termites, especially termites that build mounds, you can see similar patterns. Termites have very small brains, and if you leave one termite out in the open by itself, it will have no frame of reference, and it will be very inept. But put that same termite in a group, and suddenly it comes into action.

When building mounds, termites will walk randomly outside, picking and dropping grains of sand. However, in doing this, they will leave a trail of pheromones, which other termites pick up on. This pheromone trail tells the termite that this is a place where sand is being dropped off, so the termite will do just that, leaving a pheromone trail of its own. Over time, the pheromones get stronger and stronger in the area, so more and more termites start dropping sand there.

This phenomenon is known as stigmergy and researchers believe that it is present at the level of biomolecules as well in cellular morphogenesis. You can see this in the way that molecules can self-organize into polar or star-like shapes. Using the termite model, researchers ran experiments in which they provided external stimuli to see how the cells would send out indirect signals to each other that would lead to self-organized behavior. What they have seen is that these proto-cells would react to their exterior, and then signal to each other in a way that is similar to the termite pheromone exchange phenomenon, and then they would organize into patterns that would be appropriate for the situation.