Identifying Potential Biological Controls for White Nose Syndrome in Bats in the Soudan Underground Mine and Forestville Mystery Cave

White Nose Bat SyndromeIn caves and mines across North America a terrifying biological phenomenon is occurring to an important wildlife species that is too often associated with creepiness itself. White Nose Syndrome (WNS) of bats, a disease caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, has caused the mass mortality of multiple species of hibernating bats in North America, posing an extinction level threat to these species. Graduate student Liam Genter in the Blanchette lab is collaborating with the Salomon lab in the University’s Center for Drug Design to search for potential biocontrols for this disease in the Soudan Underground Mine and Forestville Mystery Cave and to develop new strategies to combat the WNS epidemic.

WNS was first detected in Minnesota in the Soudan Underground Mine in 2015. It has since been detected in Forestville Mystery Cave and other major bat hibernacula. The infection has progressed over the last several years, with mass mortality observed at Soudan Underground Mine in the spring of 2017 and 2018, and Mystery Cave in the spring of 2018. Hibernating bat populations have already decreased by half in the Soudan Underground Mine, and are likely to drop as low as 10% of their pre-WNS levels if the epidemic follows the pattern that has been observed in New York and other locations.

Liam Genter gathering samples in the Soudan Iron MineCurrently one portion of Genter’s research aims to identify and screen potential biocontrol agents for WNS. In order to do this, more information needs to be gathered, as currently very little is known about the microbial communities in bat hibernacula. Genter takes fungal samples from these locations and they are taken back to the lab, where he uses cutting-edge technologies to assess and identify what species of fungi exist throughout the cave, and if there might be species that have potential as a biological control for WNS.

“This knowledge will not only allow us to identify and screen potential biocontrol agents, it will also allow for the evaluation of potential adverse off-target effects of any adopted control strategy to the other fungal species in bat hibernacula, an important consideration for the management of this epidemic,” says Genter.

Another portion of Genter’s research seeks to understand the spread of the pathogen through subterranean locations.

“The areas occupied by the hibernating bats can be huge--Mystery Cave, for example, has over 13 miles of mapped passages-- making it critical to understand the scope of the spread, as it will inform the efficacy and feasibility of any adopted control strategy,” says Genter.

Pseudogymnoascus destructans samplesWhile Genter says performing precise scientific work in these difficult to access, pitch black and extremely heterogeneous environments is very challenging and requires significant flexibility and adaptation, the opportunity to work in these unique locations and enhance his skills as a scientist while expanding the body of knowledge around this topic in a way that will help protect bats in the future makes it all worthwhile.

“For me, the best part about this work is the variety and novelty of the research. I get to do a nice mixture of field and lab work, and I am getting to gain experience in a variety of exciting new laboratory technologies. Very little work has been done in the area of subterranean microbiology, so it is rewarding to help contribute new information to the greater body of human knowledge. It is very rewarding to learn things that no person has known before.”