Last updated: December 15, 2015
Killing a Bat Killer: Hindering a pathogen's relentless westward spread
In late 2014, the global population was frightened by the spreading Ebola virus, which left est Africa by airplane and traveled thousands of miles stowed safely inside the bodies of infected carriers. The virus found its way to New York City, Dallas, and Spain. Fortunately, preventative efforts stymied the viruses spread, but not before it claimed 11,293 lives.
A similarly deadly infectious disease, however, has been at work for nearly a decade in the United States, but unlike Ebola, continues its spread. White-nose syndrome is not caused by a virus, but rather a fungus, the aptly named P. destructans. Although first observed in a New York cave in 2006, its origins are mysterious. Some suspect that it came from Europe, perhaps on the soles of a cave explorer's mud-drenched boots.
Regardless of the source, P. destructans is galloping west, and at present cannot be stopped. In May, the killer fungus was found in Oklahoma. Preventative measures are helpful; for instance, every visitor to Carlsbad Caverns is asked if they have visited eastern caves or mines. If so, rangers will wash and scrub the sides and soles of their shoes in an effort to remove the fungal load –if P. destructans is residing amongst the dirt cemented inside one's boot tread, it will at least have to endure a bath of soap and the scourge of a brush.
Even so, its relentless push west is unsettling, and the responsible question to ask may not be if P. Destructans will arrive out west, but when. Fortunately, western researchers have such foresight.
Dr. Diana Northrup is a microbiologist who will constantly remind you that there are ten times the number of microbes living on or in us than we have cells in our body, there are entire ecosystems thriving on our tongues, eyes and teeth. Her promising proposal: perhaps the microbiota naturally living on the bats at Carlsbad Cavern will provide a mechanism to control the frustrating fungal disease.
Why is this a promising thought? Some North American bats are contaminated with P. destructans, yet they have somehow been able to inhibit the lurid manifestation of White-nose syndrome, which seeps into the bat's skin, coats their faces with white fungus, deteriorates their wings, and causes strange, erratic, energy-wasting behavior. Although other factors may contribute to this inhibition - like bat size - might a native colony of bat-dwelling microbes be a solution to the westward spreading fungal disease?
Dr. Northrup has killed P. destructans. In the last couple years her team has set up mist nests in the caverns and caught bats. They take swabs of their bodies and wings, collecting anything that lives there. One of these microbiota, Streptomyces, is known to inhibit fungal growth. Dr. Northrup sent these bacterial cultures to Illinois to see how they would interact with P. destructans. For understandable precautionary measures, Dr. Northrup did not want to bring P. destructans to New Mexico, for fear it might escape.
The results were encouraging: When the fungus was introduced to Streptomyces, it could no longer grow. There was a dead or "killing" zone around the bacterium, which was toxic to P. destructans. Thus, the fungus can be controlled in a laboratory setting.
But what if it arrives out west? The same bats that have made Carlsbad Caverns famous for its dramatic twilight bat exodus, the Brazilian free-tailed bats, can live in super colonies. Bracken Cave in central Texas can have twenty-million bat inhabitants - the largest colony of mammas on Earth. If the colonies here become infected, they have the potential of spreading fungal spores further, likely passing them onto other bats. The North American epidemic may escalate into a pandemic.
The microbiota collection occurring at Carlsbad Caverns –the catching and swabbing of bats - is the first step in preparedness. When P. destructans is found in western states, the goal is to have a confident understanding of the imperceptible, yet prodigious ecosystem that lives upon the bat, or more accurately, with the bat. Doing this will provide an invaluable baseline of knowledge: we will likely see differences in how bats react to P. destructans –some will be immune to the fungus. If so, we can better identify the micro-organism responsible, and potentially introduce it to afflicted bat species. It would be unrealistic to completely eliminate P. destructans –but the hope is to control it, and give bats an advantage over this ruthless fungal pathogen.
Like bats, microbes are often misunderstood. Indeed, they are sometimes deadly –Ebola provided a recent global scare. But microbes provide us far more benefit than harm; one
group of bacteria, actinobacteria, has proven to be a potent combater of human disease –in fact, they account for a majority of our antibiotics.
We know what microbes can do for us. But what can they do for bats?