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Common Bacterium Helps Bats With White-nose Syndrome

posted May 19, 2015, 2:05 PM by Al Schema   [ updated May 19, 2015, 2:23 PM ]
MAY 15, 2015 04:05 PM ET // BY LORI CUTHBERT
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Little brown bats hibernating in a cave in New York State. Most of the bats have white fungal growth on their muzzles, which is a common characteristic of white-nose syndrome.

NANCY HEASLIP, NEW YORK DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION

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A common bacterium we find in everyday things, like food flavorings, is giving scientists hope that bat populations can be saved from deadly White-nose Syndrome.

The new treatment was developed in Missouri by Forest Service scientists Sybill Amelon and Dan Lindner, and Chris Cornelison of Georgia State University.

The bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, dwells in pretty much all soils found in North America and is safe for plants and animals. In fact, it’s been used in more than one industrial application, including flavorings for our food, for over half a century, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

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This time, the researchers grew the bacterium on cobalt, which produced so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that stop the fungus, Psuedogymnoascus destructans, from growing.

“The amazing part about this is that these compounds diffuse through the air and act at very low concentrations, so the bats are treated by exposing them to air containing the VOCs (the compounds do not need to be ‘directly’ applied to the bats),” according to a USFS press release.

"Many of the bats in those trials experienced increased health and survival," it said.

However, more than one chemical is created from the reaction, so the scientists’ next step is to isolate which chemical is the one that stops the fungus from growing.

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White-nose Syndrome attacks a bat’s nose, ears, and wings while it hibernates, when the animal’s temperature is at its lowest. All infected bats in a colony die, usually because their immune systems are compromised and they use twice as much energy during hibernation as healthy bats do, shedding precious fat reserves too early, according to researchers.

The disease has been plowing through bat populations since the early 2000s, killing nearly 6 million bats since 2006, according to WhiteNoseSyndrome.org. Twenty-six U.S. states have confirmed the presence of the disease.

If there’s no cure found for White-nose Syndrome, many scientists fear that bats will be extinct within a few decades.

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In the meantime, the lucky 150 bats that survived the experiments during the Missouri research will be released on Tuesday, May 19.