Thomas Bourguignon, Jan Šobotník, Jana Brabcová, David Sillam-Dusse`s, Aleš Buček, Jana Krasulová, Blahoslava Vytisková, Zuzana Demianová, Michael Mareš, Yves Roisin, Heiko Vogel
In termites, as in many social insects, some individuals specialize in colony defense, developing diverse weaponry. As workers of the termite Neocapritermes taracua (Termitidae: Termitinae) age, their efficiency to perform general tasks decreases, while they accumulate defensive secretions and increase their readiness to fight. This defensive mechanism involves self-sacrifice through body rupture during which an enzyme, stored as blue crystals in dorsal pouches, converts precursors produced by the labial glands into highly toxic compounds. Here, we identify both components of this activated defense system and describe the molecular basis responsible for the toxicity of N. taracua worker autothysis. The blue crystals are formed almost exclusively by a specific protein named BP76. By matching N. taracua transcriptome databases with amino acid sequences, we identified BP76 to be a laccase. Following autothysis, the series of hydroquinone precursors produced by labial glands get mixed with BP76, resulting in the conversion of relatively harmless hydroquinones into toxic benzoquinone analogues. Neocapritermes taracua workers therefore rely on a two-component activated defense system, consisting of two separately stored secretions that can react only after suicidal body rupture, which produces a sticky and toxic cocktail harmful to opponents.