Alumni Profile • John Wertz '01
Taken with the beauty of a termite's gut

John WertzLate 18th-century poet William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand. John Wertz '01 sees it in a termite-or, more precisely, a termite's gut.

A newly minted PhD, Wertz conducted his doctoral research at Michigan State University on the community of microorganisms that lives inside the gut of a species of termite common to Michigan. He is credited with isolating and characterizing one particular species of bacteria that lives on the gut wall. As its discoverer, Wertz got to name the bacterium: Stenoxybacter acetivorans.

"It means 'acetate-consuming, rod-shaped bacterium with a narrow oxygen tolerance,'" he translated. "We knew that oxygen gets into the termite's gut. And we knew that oxygen is toxic to the microbes in the gut that digest the wood. But nobody understood what organisms are responsible for the removal of that oxygen."

Until one Saturday morning in July of 2002, when Wertz walked into his lab and found large colonies of a new organism growing on special plates he'd put in a low-oxygen chamber. "Alarm bells went off in my head," he said. He had found the mystery microorganism, the oxygen remover.

Or one of them. "The total volume of a termite gut is a microliter," Wertz explained. "That's one one-millionth of a liter. Yet there are millions of organisms in there-700 or so species-in highly structured, complex relationships. I studied one species of them. And 90 percent of the other species we haven't even begun to study yet."

He shakes his head. "It's astounding, and very beautiful."

He means not only the twisting, spiraling, many-shaped microorganisms that parade across his microscope slide. That, yes, but also the larger pattern of which they are a part: millions of microbes, each needing the others in order to stay alive and to digest wood in the gut, which keeps the termite itself alive and eating wood, which replenishes nutrients in the soil, which keeps plants growing, which keeps animals-including humans-alive.

Wertz summed it up: "I can start with you and go all the way back to the bacteria in the guts of termites. In a way, we're all dependent on what happens there. It's a phenomenal way to look at the interconnectedness of life-and very humbling."

A striking demonstration of that interconnection is the postdoctoral research Wertz is doing at MSU. He's moved from termites to a team investigating premature births in humans. "The lessons we learn from the interactions of microbes in the termite gut help us make hypotheses about how microbial communities work in the human reproductive tract," he said. "We think changes there might be a factor in preterm births."

Besides awe and wonder at the intricacy of God's creation, this daily lesson he gets in life's interconnections has another effect on Wertz. He sees how the pattern plays out in human communities, too.

"I can't be selfish with a worldview like this," he said. "I can't isolate myself and care only about my family, my group. I see the impact everything has on everything else, including the impact of the good I can do, even if I'm doing something as small as working on termites."