Field to discuss potential cure for white-nose syndrome in bats

A doctor discovered a gene that could cure a deadly disease that has killed more than 90 percent of a population. But that gene also has the potential to kill even more.

Not surprisingly, Ken Field and his researchers at Bucknell University are in a bit of a predicament, as they have identified what they believe could be the solution to white-nose syndrome in bats. WNS is a disease that has claimed the lives of at least 5.7 million bats in eastern North America since it was first discovered in New York state in 2007.

“This gene is either involved in protecting the bats or in causing death from white-nose syndrome, and we can’t yet tell the difference,” said Field, a biology professor.

He will address the issue at 12:15 p.m. today at the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s weekly Brown Bag in Smith Wilkes Hall. He will first provide some background information on the emerging disease, which is caused by a distinctive fungus that grows and lives on hibernating bats, eventually killing them. He will describe early treatment efforts that failed in contrast with new approaches used to tackle the problem.

“We knew so little about how the disease progresses [when we started] that we really were using very crude tools,” he said. “What we thought would be effective turned out not to work.”

Now, Field and his team are hoping to educate themselves about the disease and the bats as much as possible in order to strategize more precise intervention strategies.

He will conclude the lecture with a discussion of the remnant bat populations that have been able to survive with the disease through the winter. By the spring, the warm weather kills off the cold-loving fungus, and survivors are then able to recover.

“There’s a population in New York and one in Pennsylvania that we’re studying,” he said. “The bats appear to have survived white-nose syndrome, and we’re hopeful they can teach us what tricks they have to solve this problem. These populations are smaller than they used to be, but seem to be stable.”

Field said though the many bat species in North America have declined significantly, including the little brown bat population that has been endemic to the Chautauqua Institution area since its founding, they are not dying off as rapidly as they were when the disease first emerged.

“It’s now clear in states like New York that the decline leveled off,” he said. “If the population started above 2,000, it appears it was able to level off before that local population was extricated.”

Field does not know whether the survivors in those populations are genetically different than the bats that fall prey to the disease.

“Has natural selection picked these bats, so that they can then survive into the next generation? That to me is a huge question,” he said. “If natural selection has occurred, and the next generation is resistant to white-nose syndrome, then we just have to be patient and protect them so they can recover on their own.”

Field estimated the fungus was from introduced from Europe to bats in North America. Trained in immunology, he never studied bats until six or seven years ago when his colleague informed him of the issue.

“She felt the immune response was going to be the key to understanding the difference between bats in Europe and North America,” he said. “It was intriguing enough to attract me to the problem. Now basically all of my lab is working on WNS, so I’m planning to continue studying bats for the rest of my career.”