Relatives Of White Nose Syndrome Fungus Found, May Help Find A Cure

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

First identified in 2006 in upstate New York, White Nose Syndrome (WNS) has decimated the North American bat population, killing millions of animals over the past several years.

According to a new report in the journal Fungal Biology, biologists from the US Forest Service have identified several benign relatives of the fungus that is believed to cause the disease.

“Identification of the closest known relatives of this fungus makes it possible to move forward with genetic work to examine the molecular toolbox this fungus uses to kill bats,” said study co-author Daniel Lindner, a research plant pathologist with the Forest Service. “Ultimately, we hope to use this information to be able to interrupt the ability of this fungus to cause disease.”

The fungi identified in the study – many still without a scientific Latin name – were found in bat caves and directly on the animals. However, they are not thought to be the culprits behind WNS. The study researchers said they hope to understand what makes one fungal relative deadly to bats and another benign.

“This research increases our confidence that this disease-causing fungus is, in fact, an invasive species,” said Mylea Bayless, Bat Conservation International’s director of conservation programs in the U.S. and Canada. “Its presence among bats in Europe, where it does not cause mass mortality, could suggest hope for bats suffering from this devastating wildlife disease. Time will tell.”

Another study published last month in the open access journal PLOS ONE cataloged the sharp decline of US bat populations. Due to “multiple threats,” bats have declined from relative abundance to 2011 by 71 percent for little brown bats, 34 percent for tricolored bat, 30 percent for Indiana bats, and 31 percent for northern long-eared bats.

In 2009, researchers identified the fungus Geomyces destructans as the culprit behind WNS. Based on the results of a recent DNA sequencing analysis, however, the Forest Service study now says the fungus actually belongs in a different genus and should be given the name Pseudogymnoascus destructans.

“This research represents more than just a name change,” Bayless said. “Understanding the evolutionary relationships between this fungus and its cousins in Europe and North America should help us narrow our search for solutions to WNS.”

The study was the result of a collaboration between the Forest Service, USGS National Wildlife Health Center and the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

“Collaboration is key to responding to problems as devastating as WNS,” said Michael T. Rains, director of the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. “We have come a long way since we first encountered WNS, in large part due to the cooperation among government agencies, universities and non-government organizations.”

“For this study in particular, USGS and Fish & Wildlife Service partners played critical roles collecting the fungi used in these studies,” Rains added. “Problems this large will not be solved without unprecedented cooperation, and this study is a great example of that.”

The Fish & Wildlife Service has enacted several measures designed to restrict the spread to WNS, including a moratorium on caving activities in affected regions.