Lock Haven University Biology Professor Dr. Barrie Overton recently co-authored a study with Penn State University, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The research, directed by Dr. Marilyn Roossinck at Penn State University, reveals a newly discovered virus infecting the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats that could help track the spread of the disease that has decimated bat populations across the United States.
Researchers are hopeful that regional variations in the virus may provide a stronger understanding of the spread of white nose syndrome. The syndrome, caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), has killed an estimated 6 million bats in North America since 2006. Species such as little brown bats have an estimated mortality rate as high as 99 percent. The loss of little brown bats and other bat species has serious ecological repercussions. Bats are a vital control for many insect populations including mosquitoes and many pests detrimental to the agricultural industry.
Until this point, developing an understanding of the epidemiology behind the disease has been difficult given the fungus is nearly identical from all sites where it has been isolated. The variations present in the newly discovered virus may lend insight into the spread of the fungus. Researchers examined 62 isolates of the fungus, including 35 from the United States, 10 from Canada, and 17 from Europe. The joint research was reported on December, 27, 2016 online in PLOS Pathogens.
The study, directed by Penn State, poses new questions and opportunities for researchers. Overton explained, “Pd is progressively moving west and carrying the virus. Because the virus evolves faster than the fungus, scientists can hopefully track where new infections come from by analyzing the virus.”
According to Overton, research on white-nose syndrome has been taking place at LHU since 2011 and has involved numerous students. Part of that research involves utilizing polyethylene glycol (PG) as a chemical control. “The use of PG as a potential chemical control and fact that it causes stress to the Pd fungus we have fully documented in the lab at LHU,” said Overton.
The good news for bat populations is that when the fungus is stressed through exposure to polyethylene glycol at the appropriate concentration, spores fail to germinate, mycelium goes into a static phase (no growth), and based on the research study published in PLOS reported here, the virus is cleared. In turn, the virus-free strain of Pd produces less spores. According to Overton, “If PG can do the same in a natural environment—stop spore germination, slow growth of fungus, and produce virus free strains that don’t produce as many spores—that would be a game changer for bats.”
Overton hopes he gets the funding and opportunity to try long term studies of PG in the field. He hopes to continue research at LHU but needs to find stakeholders interested in funding and collaborating on future studies. “The goal is to ramp up testing in the environment of PG because things tend to work differently in the lab than they do in nature. The PA Game Commission has helped us to find stakeholders, but we need more people interested in helping us through the process in order to gain an understanding of the efficacy in the field,” said Overton.
Overton added, because he gets this question often, “no PG is not antifreeze, it is a polymer that is water soluble and used in the pharmaceutical industry and considered non-toxic as it is used in many things; laxatives, toothpastes, coatings on pills, even the shiny coating on goat feed.”
Several LHU students are currently at work on research that will assist in determining whether or not PG can slow down the environmental transmission of the fungus. Overton noted that large-scale studies are needed to determine if PG is as effective a chemical control in the field as it has been in the laboratory. “We’ll need to conduct longitudinal research over many years of field studies to see if PG is effective at lowering environmental transmission of the fungus,” Overton said.
The joint research efforts are a step forward in understanding the spread of a disease that has wreaked havoc on the nation’s bat population and proven difficult to control.
Lock Haven University is a member of Pennsylvania’s State System, the largest provider of higher education in the Commonwealth. Its 14 universities offer more than 2,300 degree and certificate programs in more than 530 academic areas of study. Nearly 520,000 system alumni live and work in Pennsylvania.
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