White-nose syndrome is a devastating disease killing millions of U.S. bats. The condition is caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans which attacks epidermal and connective tissues of the nose and wings. In some areas, where the disease has the highest prevalence, there is a greater than 90% mortality in little brown bat (scientific name: Myotis lucifugus) populations. Yet, the ailment has spread to all 6 species of bats present in the continental U.S. The painful fungal growth wakes normally dormant bats from their torpor bouts (think winter hibernation with bears). When the sick bats attempt to hunt in the winter, there are very limited resources, which results in starvation and hypothermia. It is believed that the disease is transmitted through anthropogenic means or direct contact of the closely-knit group animals. The disease is spreading rapidly westward and it is estimated that losing these vital insectivore populations could cost the U.S. agricultural industry the equivalent of $22.9 billion in pesticides annually.
How could there be an upside to the loss of vital part of our ecosystem? According to a team of scientists working for the U.S. Geological Survey, there are similarities with the bat’s immune system response to the fungus and how our own responds to human immunodeficiency virus. Dr. Carol Meteyer is a member of this team and noticed the similarity while trying to understand the extreme mortality associated with white-nose syndrome. Bats are particularly susceptible to the fungus during hibernation during which they have lowered metabolic rates. The immunosuppression that bats undergo has parallels with how HIV patients eventually suffer autoimmune deficiency after the destruction of their helper T cell populations. Based on new insights brought about by this comparison, new potential treatment options are being devised. Meteyer leads a joint effort with several labs associated at the National Institute of Health and has disclosed to several sources that results are promising.