Scientists may have made a discovery that will help save Canada’s bat population

close-up of bat with white nose fungus [Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters]

Researchers have discovered that ultraviolet light may be the key to combatting a disease that is threatening bat species.

White nose syndrome is a condition caused by an invasive fungus from Europe and Asia. While bats in those continents have resistance to the fungus, it is often deadly for North American bats. However, scientists recently discovered that ultraviolet light can be very effective in breaking the fungus down.

A study in the science journal Nature Communications found that just a few seconds’ exposure to moderate UV light destroyed 99% of P. destructans, the fungus that causes white nose syndrome. The study’s authors, including botanists and molecular scientists, wrote that the fungus’s susceptibility to the light “represents a potential ‘Achilles’ heel’ of P. destructans that might be exploited for treatment of bats with [white nose syndrome].”

“It’s not something that you would necessarily expect,” the study’s lead author, Jon Palmer, told National Geographic.

several bats with white nose syndrome
European and Asian bats have had millions of years to adapt to the fungus, but for North American bats, it is often deadly. [Credit: Flickr/Government of Alberta]

Palmer, a research botanist with the Center for Forest Mycology Research in Wisconsin, said that while most fungi thrive in dark, cold environments, they can still withstand and repair the damage caused by UV light. But the white-nose fungus is different. “It was missing this key enzyme in DNA repair,” he said. “The fungus was very sensitive to UV light.”

So far, this information hasn’t been used to treat bats out in the field, but that will be the next step. However, scientists will have to find a way to expose bats to the light without disrupting their hibernation and causing harm. “We’re very excited about moving this from the lab to actually working with bats,” study co-author Daniel Lindner said. An estimated 5.7 million bats have been killed by white nose syndrome since it was discovered in 2006. In Muskoka, five of the eight species of bats in the area are threatened  due to the fungus.

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