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Understanding how white-nose syndrome kills bats

White-nose syndrome is an unpleasant and devastating killer disease that has afflicted bats across the U.S. and Canada since 2006. The topic has been extensively covered on Digital Journal.

A fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans causes white-nose syndrome in bats.
The infection strikes bats during their winter hibernation, leaving them weakened and susceptible to starvation and secondary infections. The fungus appears as a white, powdery substance on the muzzles, ears and wings of infected bats and gives them the appearance they’ve been dunked in powdered sugar.

It has been estimated that over 7 million bats have succumbed to the disease over the past five years and it has been detected in 22 states in the U.S. alone.

Scientists have a new insight into the disease and one that may pave the way for a treatment. The insight is based on an enzyme secreted by the killer fungus. The fungus feeds by exporting digestive enzymes and then importing the break-down products (this is called extracellular digestion.)

Researchers have managed to identify the exported enzymes and they have isolated the one that is causing the greatest amount of tissue destruction. This enzyme has been named Destructin-1. Knowing this has allowed an inhibitor for the enzyme to be sourced. The best candidate is called chymostatin.

Trials are set to take place using the inhibitor; if these prove successful then a possible treatment for the disease could be administered to infected bat populations. There is some way to go before this becomes a reality.

The research was carried out at UC San Francisco and Brown University. The findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper headed “Heritable symbiosis: The advantages and perils of an evolutionary rabbit hole.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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