23 September 2014

Bat fungus research could contribute to human health

New Brunswick Museum researchers sharing findings about white-nose syndrome with other scientists

CBC News

A study being done at the New Brunswick Museum about a bat disease could also help contribute to human health research.

The museum has been sharing its findings about white-nose syndrome with other researchers in hopes it will lead sooner to a treatment for the fungus that's been devastating New Brunswick's brown bat population, said Don McAlpine, the head of zoology.

"We have somebody out in B.C. who’s interested in looking at some of the bacteria associated with this that may play a role in developing immunity to diseases that affect humans," he said.

"We have somebody who’s interested in bioprospecting for compounds that might be used in pharmaceuticals, but he tells us it's more likely to be hair shampoo."

The museum is also working with Georgia State University, said McAlpine.

"They've been able to take the work to the next level," he said.

"We did the initial work here in the lab at the museum looking for some of these cultures that might suppress white-nose growth and they seem to do that in a lab setting. Now we have to move to the field."

Study started in 2009

Researchers at the New Brunswick Museum started collecting fungus samples from bats and caves in 2009.

The fungus, which appears on the muzzles and other body parts of bats, causes them to wake up early from their winter hibernation.

The bats end up dying from starvation, due to a lack of insects to eat or exposure while searching for food.

New Brunswick's brown bat population dropped to 22 this spring, down from 7,000 in 2011, due to white-nose syndrome.

The disease was first detected in a cave west of Albany, N.Y., in 2006 and hit New Brunswick around 2011.

The falling bat population is a problem for the province because bats are a natural form of pest control, McAlpine has said.

The lifespan of bats is between 30 and 35 years but they have a relatively low birth rate, typically just one offspring each year, so it could take years for the population to recover, he has said.