Can native microbes help protect Minnesota’s bat population from the deadly white-nose bat syndrome?

By: Kelley Hosieth
Infographic: Megan Smith

View full infographic here.

Pseudogymnoascus destructans (PD), the fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome (WNS), was first detected in upstate New York in 2007. Over the past decade, that state’s bat populations have declined by 90% and the fungus has since spread across the country, including Minnesota.

To combat the spread of WNS, the University of Minnesota’s Christine Salomon and her research team have been working in the Soudan Mine, an old iron mine in northern Minnesota. They hope to find native fungi or bacteria that act as a biological control to stop PD from causing more ecological damage.

“A biological control is a good solution because it spreads like the disease and can be dispersed into the environment,” says Michael Wilson, a postdoc in the Salomon lab. “That sounds like a simple plan, but nothing like this has ever been done before.”

The terrain produces one of the greatest challenges for scientists. Bats are widely dispersed in dark caves with uneven terrain. Sometimes, researchers don’t know how large the caves actually are.

WNS spreads when infected bats come into contact with healthy bats. The fungus infects bats’ skin, which causes them to wake up more frequently from hibernation. Once awake, the bats quickly burn their stored fat, and they starve.

Wilson is working on the basic biology of P. destructans to help guide the implementation of a biological control strategy. “If it only affects bats, and all the bats die, then the environment will be disease-free,” Wilson says. “But if the pathogen is self-sustaining, the environment is contaminated indefinitely.”

Some researchers have argued for no intervention to save little brown bats, (Myotis lucifugus) and their larger cousins, northern long-eared bats (Myotis septentrionalis). They believe that resources should go to saving the remaining 10% of bat populations that survived infection.

“It would require a big investment in protecting remnant populations. So you can either intervene now or use all your resources to try and help the remnant populations survive– even if we don’t understand why they survive,” Wilson said.

Salomon, a member of the University’s BioTechnology Institute continues to work on white-nose syndrome, testing hundreds of fungal and bacterial isolates that have the potential to act as a biological control. Once the lab identifies the most promising strains, they’ll begin preliminary testing of control agents on surfaces in the field.  They are hopeful they have an effective method to help bats in Minnesota and across the country. Although they would like to spend many more years refining and testing their biocontrol candidates in the lab, time is running out due to the precipitous decline in bat populations every winter.  “There are so many questions that cannot be answered until we do field trials,” says Salomon. “There are risks that come with it but that’s part of our work.”