Defending North American bats from the emerging White Nose epidemic
Bats play a major role in the ecosystem and economy here in Missouri and across North America. According to the USGS, bats are the primary consumers of insects in temperate regions. The insect suppression service that the bats provide saves the nation’s farmers between four and fifty billion dollars a year in lost crops and pesticide costs. Bats then produce waste that becomes the primary input of nutrients to Missouri’s over 7000 caves and allows the caves to support diverse and unique life.
Unfortunately, in 2007 a disease that is now called White Nose Syndrome (WNS) appeared in the bat populations of the northeastern United States. It is caused by a white fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans. The fungus grows on the bats while they hibernate and causes skin lesions leading to inflammation. This inflammation and irritation wakes the bats from their hibernation, causing them to burn precious fat reserves while it is still winter. The bats then starve or die from shock before spring arrives. The fungus has spread rapidly across the eastern United States and has left behind it high mortality. Generally, bat populations have declined by 80% with some populations totally lost.
We investigated two approaches to defend bats from WNS while avoiding disturbing their hibernation, killing beneficial fungi, or releasing genetically-modified bacteria. We designed pathways on plasmids for the production of ocimene, a volatile organic compound, and leupeptin, a protease inhibitor, to reduce the severity of disease in different ways.
Continue to our project page to learn more!
Tricolor bat photo credit: Lucas Harper
WNS bat photo credit: Jonathan Mays, Wildlife Biologist, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife