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Between the field, the lab and his computer

Humboldt Fellow Dr. Bitao Qiu researches termites at the University of Freiburg

Freiburg, Apr 18, 2023

Dr. Bitao Qiu came to Freiburg because of the termites. The evolutionary biologist and bioinformatician had already worked with ants, but he has since found termites to be of interest. He is fascinated by the special evolutionary and developmental biology questions about these insects that University of Freiburg biologist Prof. Dr. Judith Korb is exploring. Since summer 2022, Bitao Qiu has been a Humboldt Fellow in Korb’s research group “Evolutionary Biology & Animal Ecology: From Ecology to Genes.”

Evolutionary biologist and bioinformatician Bitao Qiu researches termites: He is particularly interested in the evolutionary and developmental biology of these insects. Photo: Jürgen Gocke

The evolution of social organization

Bitao Qiu did not know anything about Freiburg until last summer. But he knew of Judith Korb, a professor of biology at the University of Freiburg who conducts research on the evolution of termites. “I had already read her publications in Copenhagen and was curious about her work,” says Qiu. He earned a master’s degree in biology at the Danish capital’s university, then wrote his doctoral thesis and did postdoctoral work on ants so his interest in termites was not far behind. Qiu is from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. He completed a bachelor's degree in biology in China, trained in bioinformatics and worked for a company for two years. Then he moved to the University of Copenhagen. And at some point, he contacted Judith Korb with a project idea. “I had a very specific project idea,” says Korb, “but I didn’t know anyone who could implement it...” Then she found just the right person. “It was a perfect fit,” says the biologist. They managed to secure a grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for Qiu. Since August 2022, the 34-year-old has now been working in Freiburg on the social evolution of termites, oscillating between the field, the laboratory and his computer.

“For this project, you need to know biology, be interested in evolutionary biology and know bioinformatics,” says Korb. Roughly speaking, the question is which forms of termite colony organization are evolutionarily earlier and which are later. “This question has been hotly debated for more than 40 years,” says Korb. It is in part because the answer could have implications for understanding the origin of social organization in insects.

Queens, “fake” and “real” workers

Different termite species show different degrees of social complexity. Some live in small colonies of a few hundred individuals; if the king or queen dies, a simple “worker” may inherit the position. In addition, workers can fly out and establish their own small colonies as queen or king. They are therefore called “fake workers.” In other species, colonies are larger; here, workers may inherit the brood position of kings and queens when they die, but may not fledge and found new colonies. From this stage on, they are called “real workers.”

And finally, there are huge colonies with several million individuals and sterile workers. This complex form of colony organization, roughly similar to that of many ants, evolved evolutionarily the latest. But how the other two forms evolved is as yet unclear. “Phylogeny, that is, the family tree we know, doesn’t help us here because different species with different levels of organization evolved independently,” says Korb. As a result, Qiu wants to take a different approach and examine genes from different species that are important in developmental biology. This analysis should provide clues to the evolutionary history of the “real” and “fake” workers.

Gathering termites in South Africa

To do this, however, he first needs termites of many different species - and he and Korb have to collect them themselves all over the world. They have already been to the Australian Outback and the USA, and in May they will travel to South Africa. Of course, they also rely on existing stocks in the lab and specimens from colleagues, but this is not possible for all relevant species. Besides, Qiu finds, “It’s fun to collect them.”  He likes that his research is so diverse and that he can do almost everything himself. Most of all, he works in the lab, creating genomes of the different species and looking at gene expression. In turn, he analyzes these using elaborate bioinformatics methods.

Freiburg and the surrounding area are something he has only gotten to know a little bit so far, in addition to all the work. “I've gone hiking a few times,” he says. Qiu’s fellowship runs until 2024, when he plans to continue researching in the field. He is interested in whether genes and gene networks that regulate germline and somatic cell development in animals also play a role in the differentiation of kings and queens and workers in a social insect colony. Here, kings and queens would correspond to the germline, and workers to somatic cells. “The underlying question is whether colonies of social insects can be considered a kind of superorganism,” says Korb. “I used to be very cautious about that claim, but there are actually amazing similarities in the evolution of such colonies to the developmental biology of, say, a mammal.”

Qiu hopes to complete his complex project during his time as a Humboldt Fellow. “I like that there is a lot of funding for basic research in Germany.” For now, he wants to collect enough termites in South Africa, which he still lacks. “Whether I’ll actually find them is unclear yet,” he says. “But we’re scientists. We’re used to solving problems.”