Termite gas emissions select for hydrogenotrophic microbial communities in termite mounds

Eleonora Chiri, Philipp A. Nauer, Rachael Lappan, Thanavit Jirapanjawat, David W. Waite, Kim M. Handley, Philip Hugenholtz, Perran L.M. Cook, Stefan K. Arndt, Chris Greening

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12 Citations (Scopus)


Organoheterotrophs are the dominant bacteria in most soils worldwide. While many of these bacteria can subsist on atmospheric hydrogen (H2), levels of this gas are generally insufficient to sustain hydrogenotrophic growth. In contrast, bacteria residing within soil-derived termite mounds are exposed to high fluxes of H2 due to fermentative production within termite guts. Here, we show through community, metagenomic, and biogeochemical profiling that termite emissions select for a community dominated by diverse hydrogenotrophic Actinobacteriota and Dormibacterota. Based on metagenomic short reads and derived genomes, uptake hydrogenase and chemosynthetic RuBisCO genes were significantly enriched in mounds compared to surrounding soils. In situ and ex situ measurements confirmed that high- and low-affinity H2-oxidizing bacteria were highly active in the mounds, such that they efficiently consumed all termite-derived H2 emissions and served as net sinks of atmospheric H2. Concordant findings were observed across the mounds of three different Australian termite species, with termite activity strongly predicting H2 oxidation rates (R2 = 0.82). Cell-specific power calculations confirmed the potential for hydrogenotrophic growth in the mounds with most termite activity. In contrast, while methane is produced at similar rates to H2 by termites, mounds contained few methanotrophs and were net sources of methane. Altogether, these findings provide further evidence of a highly responsive terrestrial sink for H2 but not methane and suggest H2 availability shapes composition and activity of microbial communities. They also reveal a unique arthropod–bacteria interaction dependent on H2 transfer between host-associated and free-living microbial communities.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2102625118
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number30
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jul 2021


  • hydrogen
  • lithoautotrophy
  • termite
  • Actinobacteria
  • trace gas

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