Prof. Rosengaus’ research tries to understand the factors that may have selected for the evolution of termite sociality. She has hypothesized that pathogens and/or parasites may have played important selection forces that favored the evolution of complex insect societies. This evolutionary question is studied by focusing on the adaptations that termites have evolved in order to resist disease. Termites nest, feed and forage in microbially-rich environments and their colonies are composed of thousands of individuals which could easily become infected either through the direct contact with pathogens or indirectly through the social interactions among nestmates. Yet, in spite the high risks of infection, termites thrive within their nests. What are the means by which these insects cope with disease? What are the costs and benefits of group-living with respect to disease susceptibility and disease resistance? Prof. Rosengaus’ research has established that termites use several, and often simultaneous mechanisms to reduce the risks of infection, including behavioral, biochemical, immunological and social adaptations. This line of work has now expanded to consider the role of pathogenic microbes on the evolution of both termite mating strategies and social immunity whereby social interactions facilitate disease resistance at the colony-level. Additionally, the role of the termites’ microbiome on social immunity as well as transgenerational immune priming of progeny have also been a focus of her research. Given the interdisciplinary nature of her work, which is at the interface of evolutionary biology, behavioral and chemical ecology, immunology and genetics, new and more holistic insights into host/pathogen dynamics and the role these dynamics play in fostering the evolution and maintenance of insect sociality are possible. Termites, as well as all other social insects, represent excellent social test organisms to answer questions about the emerging field of “socioecoimmunology.” Prof. Rosengaus’ field work takes place at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and at the Redwoods in California.
Marine and Environmental Sciences
New research from Professor Rebecca Rosengaus and graduate student Erin Cole investigates the impacts of pathogens on termite colony formation