WMU researchers receive grant to study fatal fungus in bats

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Photo of a hibernating bat.

The infection affects hibernating bats.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has awarded two Western Michigan University researchers more than $200,000 to study a fatal fungal infection afflicting hibernating bats in eastern North America.

The $223,602 grant was part of an overall $1.8 million awarded recently targeted toward eight projects across the country focused on research and management of white-nose syndrome. WNS has killed millions of bats since it was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006-07.

Dr. Maarten J. Vonhof, associate professor of biological sciences and the environmental studies, and Dr. Robert Eversole, master faculty specialist in biological sciences, are heading the research at WMU. Working with them are Dr. Timothy Carter of Ball State University and Dr. Kevin Keel of the University of California, Davis.

The research

The group is testing the efficacy of chitosan, a compound obtained from the hard outer skeleton of shellfish, to limit the growth of WNS—Pseudogymnoascus destructans—on experimentally infected bats. The compound acts as a fungal biostatic and prevents the fungus from growing.  In addition, chitosan is a wound-healing accelerant and may help to limit damage to the skin caused by the fungus. Eventually, this research may lead to a treatment that is available for widespread use to treat hibernating populations of bats or their hibernation location to limit growth and transmission of this deadly disease.

Funding was granted to eight projects at universities in New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Projects include studies to better understand bat immune responses to WNS, investigations into methods to control the disease, and ways to examine the molecular infrastructure of the fungus that causes WNS and other cave-dwelling fungi.

"Bats are fascinating animals that are vital for a healthy environment. We are hopeful that these investments into research will get us closer to getting the upper hand on this devastating disease," says Wendi Weber, co-chair of the White-Nose Syndrome Executive Committee and northeast regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funding

Since 2008, the service has granted more than $17.5 million to institutions and federal and state agencies for WNS research and response. This year’s grants are the second round of WNS research funding awarded by the service. A total of $1.4 million was awarded to federal agencies that provided matching funds for research and response to the disease. Another $1.5 million is currently available for state wildlife agencies on grants.gov.

"Scientists from around the world are working together to understand this disease, and to develop the tools to manage WNS and conserve our native bats," says Dr. Jeremy Coleman, the service’s national WNS coordinator. "Findings from past research have led to improved methods for detecting Pseudogymnoascus destructans, development of potential tools to slow disease spread and treat infected bats, and the development of a national bat population monitoring program."

Funding for the grants was provided through the service’s Endangered Species Recovery and Science Applications program.