White-nose syndrome (WNS) is a deadly fungal infection that killed millions of bats in North America since 2006. In a recent study, scientists have discovered that some bats in China are resistant to the infection, which could pave the way to new clues to learn more about the deadly bat disease.

When infected with the skin-invading fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, it results in a distinct white colorations on the bat's muzzles and wings. In the U.S., WNS has resulted in approximately 6 million deaths among the bat populations since it first appeared in 2006.

Past research found high probability that the fungus came from Europe and that humans carried the fungus to North America. The skin-invading fungus prospers in wet, cold caves where bats often live.

WNS makes the bats to prematurely awaken from hibernation. This rude awakening causes them to consume their stored fats by flying around and eventually starve or freeze to death.

According to the scientists, some American bats in Europe and Asia could have developed the ability to fight WNS through evolution. The strongest resistance to the WNS was found in bat populations in Asia.

The new study compared bat representatives from five sites in the U.S. and five in China. These bat participants lived in similar climates and latitudes.

Significantly lower levels of infection was found uniformly among all the bat species taken in China, said study author Joseph Hoyt from University of California, Santa Cruz. The amount of the deadly fungus and the fraction of infected bats were much lower compared to their counterparts in North America.

The team has found that host resistance could be a vital factor in the spread of the disease and that genetics could play a vital role. For instance, the North American bats called little brown bats had much higher infection levels compared to the Asian bats; however, some little brown individual bats had low fungal levels.

On the contrary, the study also showed that there is low fungal level variability among the long-eared bats in North America.

"The northern long-eared bat suffers really high fungal loads," said study co-author Kate Langwig. Approximately all the long-eared bats in the study were infected and the team found no overlap with the bat species from Asia.

If genetics is the key to resistance, the findings could offer hope for the survival of some American bat species that could evolve to fight the infection in time.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B on March 9.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters | Flickr

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