Scientists might have found a new way to combat white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus killing millions of bats in the U.S. and Canada.
Jon Palmer is a research botanist with the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Research Station. His team discovered that the fungus is highly sensitive to ultraviolet light. Palmer says they used a process called comparative genomics.
“We compare the genes and the DNA sequence from the pathogen to these fungi that are non-pathogenic and we look for differences,” he says. “So one of the differences that we found was that the pathogen was missing this key enzyme involved in DNA repair. And without this enzyme, the fungus is unable to repair DNA damage caused by ultraviolet light."
Palmer’s team found that just a couple of seconds of exposure to UV light killed the fungus, a discovery he calls “very exciting.” He sees this discovery as another potential tool to help treat bats with white-nose syndrome. But he says they're still figuring out how that might work.
“We initially thought that perhaps researchers or scientists could go into high-value target sites where perhaps some bats that are endangered are hibernating and you could perhaps treat individual bats with something like a hand-held light source,” Palmer says.
He says it's also possible they could install light sources on cave entrances, to treat bats as they fly in to hibernate.
“Right now, we’re at the stage of now we’ve identified this weakness in the fungus, and now we’re interested in determining whether or not it can actually be a viable treatment option. We’re doing those studies still in the lab,” Palmer says.
The fungus has reached 33 states and five Canadian provinces in the past 12 years. Palmer says the fungus is likely to continue to spread, but he says there have been reports of survivor populations in the northeast, where the disease has been present for the longest time.
“So there is some positive note that perhaps some of these bats will develop resistance, or perhaps some of them natively have genetic resistance, but I think as a community we need to continue to try to do this basic science, learn more about the fungus, learn more about the disease, and maybe we can find other properties or other characteristics that could be exploited for potential treatment options for further down the road,” he says.
You can listen to the interview with Jon Palmer above.