Attack the Source

The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend.  A new hope in the battle against WNS?

By Chris Cornelison

For the past six years, the “silver bullet” sought by scientists battling White-nose Syndrome has been an ecologically acceptable tool for destroying or disabling the Geomyces destructans fungus, which causes this scourge that is killing millions of bats. But the search has been frustrating. While some chemical fungicides will kill the fungus, their use would likely devastate complex cave ecosystems and could contaminate water supplies.

Several teams, including ours, are exploring another, potentially more benign, option: biological agents. Now initial results from our research at Georgia State University suggest we have found a very promising candidate: a natural bacterium that in the lab is able to inhibit the fungus without actually touching the bats or the cave. Results suggest that Rhodococcus can prevent the initial colonization of healthy bats, and also slow progression of the disease in already-infected bats – and increase their chance of survival. More research is required to confirm this approach, but the evidence suggests we may be able to save bats and spare the caves.

Early results are promising and provide optimism that the Rhodococcus control agent will give wildlife-management agencies a potent new tool to prevent the spread of WNS and begin the re-colonization of hibernacula that have been devastated by this disease.

CHRIS CORNELISON is a Ph.D. candidate in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Georgia State University in Atlanta.