Scientists at UC San Francisco and Brown University have figured out the likely way that white-nose syndrome breaks down tissue in bats, opening the door to potential treatments for a disease that has killed more than six million bats since 2006 and poses a threat to the agricultural industry. The fungus feeds itself by exporting digestive enzymes and then importing the break-down products, in a process called extracellular digestion. To understand the digestive capability of this fungus, the scientists first identified all of the exported enzymes and then isolated the one most likely causing tissue destruction. They found an enzyme that could digest collagen, which forms the support structure of tissue. They named this enzyme Destructin-1, and searched through the scientific literature to identify inhibitors that could block its action. “It suggests the fungus is exporting other substances that can degrade collagen,” said Richard Bennett, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Brown University and senior author of the paper.
It’s not yet clear whether these findings will be enough to save many bats, some species of which may soon be threatened with extinction if the fungus continues to spread. Bennett said ecologists may have to try a variety of methods to protect bats from further destruction. “These include ecological approaches for limiting the spread of the pathogen across the U.S., along with new methods for limiting the infection or supporting bat health,” he said.