White nose syndrome highlights need for sustained investment in research

Bats in flight (photo credit: FWS)

As researchers learn more about Pseudogymnoascus (Geomyces) destructans, the fungus that causes White Nose syndrome in bats, more becomes known about what makes this disease so resilient and seemingly invincible. Various estimates put the bat death toll in the United States in the vicinity of about six million bats since it was first discovered seven years ago.

The fungus infects bats during their winter hibernation months when their body temperatures drop below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). While it is unknown precisely what causes death in the bats, the virus seems to wake the bats amid their hibernation in the middle of winter, when fruit and insects are scarce. In addition to the damaged skin and tell-tale fungus covered white nose, researchers have found the dead bats with empty stomachs, which suggests that they starve to death.

A recent study from the University of Illinois aimed at understanding the biology of the White nose syndrome fungus pinpoints the tenacious adaptability of the disease. The study, spearheaded by graduate student Daniel Raudabaugh, found that the fungus can survive a wide range of pH, with the exception of extremely acidic substances, which would be difficult to introduce into a natural environment without contaminating habitat and other life forms. Other than its vulnerability to warm temperatures, the only other weakness reported in the organism is its low ability to take in water from surfaces. The fungus compensates for this weakness, however, with an ability to absorb water from the degraded fats and free fatty acids found in the skin of living and dead animals.

But there are signs of hope in the quest to eradicate the disease. This summer, graduate student Chris Cornelison, a microbiologist with the University of Georgia, highlighted a study he is working on in conjunction with several research teams that may have discovered a natural bacterium (Rhodococcus rhodochrous strain DAP96253) that could inhibit the fungus without damaging the bats or the caves they inhabit. While early test results have shown promise, Cornelison asserts further study is needed to properly assess potential impacts on the cave ecosystems and the bats themselves. Additionally, scientists with the US Forest Service, in a recent study, identified a close fungal relative to White Nose Syndrome that may help researchers to better genetically map the fungus and better understand how it functions.

Another bright spot: recognition of the need to combat White nose syndrome is among the few issues Democrats and Republicans in Congress agree on. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs Chairman John Fleming (R-LA) has noted that bats are worth billions to the agriculture industry due to the role they play in pollinating crops and the large amount of insect pests they consume. “By losing these bats, farmers and timber harvesters now have to spend millions of additional dollars to buy pesticides to protect their crops and trees,” stated Fleming.

The current effort to develop a remedy to white nose syndrome highlights the important work being done at all levels of scientific research, including the graduate level. It also serves as a perfect illustration for the important role scientific research in general plays in sustaining our overall way of life. Unfortunately, the politics surrounding the continuance of federal budget sequestration and the recent government shutdown has put the ability to carry out such research at risk. In order to find a solution to white nose syndrome and other problems facing human society, policymakers need to provide and sustain the necessary monetary investments to ensure scientific researchers have the means to continue to innovate and cultivate groundbreaking discoveries.

Additional information on coordinated efforts to address White nose syndrome are available here.

Photo credit: FWS Whitenosesyndrome.org

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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