White nose syndrome is an emergent disease that kills hibernating bats in the northeastern and central U.S. Since 2007, millions of bats in 25 states and Canada have died from the disease.
White nose syndrome is named for the white fungus that infects the skin, muzzle, ears, and wings of a bat and awakens them from hibernation causing them to burn fat reserves. Bats become emaciated and dehydrated and display strange behavior like flying during the day in the middle of winter. Scientists can determine if a bat is infected by looking at a microscopic pattern of skin erosion as well as other signs like white growth of the fungus on bat’s muzzle and wing tissue.
The deadly fungus generates spores that can survive in places that other bacteria can’t and as a result it’s spreading throughout North America. Some bat populations have declined so much that they’re being considered for the Endangered Species List.
It’s hard to save bats because the fungus is becoming so prevalent and because bats live in such remote and hard to get to habitats. But scientists are considering other methods for saving bats, one of which includes adding in good bacteria.
Scientists are looking at a microbe that produces a naturally occurring volatile organic compound (VOC) which may be able to control the fungus. The microbes can survive with the fungus, and over time, scientists think it may be able to exploit the weakness of the fungus and make it less deadly.
According to Live Science:
Researchers know soils exist that have disease-suppressive properties and are fungistatic – that is, they keep pathogenic fungi from growing and causing disease, but don’t kill them outright. We hypothesized that these soils could harbor numerous microbial antagonists of P. destructans. And in fact that’s just what we found. Bacterially-produced VOCs associated with fungistatic soils did act as antagonists against P. destructans.
The good bacteria could suppress the disease properties of the fungus and keep it from killing bats. Scientists are considering sites for field trials to see if what worked in a lab could be replicated in nature. Field trials of the microbes will be added to sites in Missouri and Kentucky.
Again, Live Science:
Ultimately it must be the goal of disease management efforts to curtail the tremendous population losses so that enough bats are able to reproduce to stabilize population numbers.
Over time, the hope is that bats will develop an immunity to white nose syndrome as they did in Europe, so that we can protect this important species. Bat are important for insect management and they keep farmers from having to use pesticides and insecticides on their crops. They’re an important part of the ecosystem and the hopes are good bacteria can save them until they establish their own immunity to this deadly fungus.
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Image: Shek Graham