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Experimental infection of bats with Geomyces destructans causes white-nose syndrome

Abstract

White-nose syndrome (WNS) has caused recent catastrophic declines among multiple species of bats in eastern North America1,2. The disease’s name derives from a visually apparent white growth of the newly discovered fungus Geomyces destructans on the skin (including the muzzle) of hibernating bats1,3. Colonization of skin by this fungus is associated with characteristic cutaneous lesions that are the only consistent pathological finding related to WNS4. However, the role of G. destructans in WNS remains controversial because evidence to implicate the fungus as the primary cause of this disease is lacking. The debate is fuelled, in part, by the assumption that fungal infections in mammals are most commonly associated with immune system dysfunction5,6,7. Additionally, the recent discovery that G. destructans commonly colonizes the skin of bats of Europe, where no unusual bat mortality events have been reported8,9,10, has generated further speculation that the fungus is an opportunistic pathogen and that other unidentified factors are the primary cause of WNS11,12. Here we demonstrate that exposure of healthy little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) to pure cultures of G. destructans causes WNS. Live G. destructans was subsequently cultured from diseased bats, successfully fulfilling established criteria for the determination of G. destructans as a primary pathogen13. We also confirmed that WNS can be transmitted from infected bats to healthy bats through direct contact. Our results provide the first direct evidence that G. destructans is the causal agent of WNS and that the recent emergence of WNS in North America may represent translocation of the fungus to a region with a naive population of animals8. Demonstration of causality is an instrumental step in elucidating the pathogenesis14 and epidemiology15 of WNS and in guiding management actions to preserve bat populations against the novel threat posed by this devastating infectious disease.

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Figure 1: Histological sections of representative wing membranes (periodic acid-Schiff stain).
Figure 2: Survival curves.

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Acknowledgements

Financial support for this project was provided by the US Geological Survey, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bat Conservation International, and the Indiana State University Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation. Use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government. We acknowledge E. Buckles, S. Darling and T. Tomasi for discussions during the development of this project. We thank N. Keller for comments during the preparation of this manuscript. We also thank J. P. White, R. Dusek, A. Klein, L. Leppert, K. Schuler, C. L. White and NWHC Animal Care Staff for their help with set-up and maintenance of animals, and D. Berndt, L. Muller, A. Pike and M. Verant for their assistance during necropsies. We thank X. Yu for help with statistical analyses.

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D.S.B., A.C.H., P.M.C. and D.M.R. designed the study. A.C.H., J.T.H.C. and D.N.R. collected wild animals for the study. J.M.L., D.S.B., C.U.M., M.J.B., J.G.B., A.C.H., A.E.B., J.T.H.C., D.N.R. and D.M.R. performed the experiment and/or assisted to collect samples upon completion. C.U.M. and M.J.B. read and interpreted histopathology. J.M.L. and J.G.B. analysed the experimental data. A.E.B. compiled data on wild bats submitted to the NWHC for diagnostic testing. J.M.L. wrote the manuscript and all co-authors provided input. D.S.B. supervised data analyses and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to David S. Blehert.

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Lorch, J., Meteyer, C., Behr, M. et al. Experimental infection of bats with Geomyces destructans causes white-nose syndrome. Nature 480, 376–378 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10590

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