Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Scientists believe they've discovered the Achilles heel of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, a disease devastating bat populations across North America. New research suggests the fungus can't survive significant doses ultraviolet light.
To better understand the pathogen, researchers with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of New Hampshire compared the fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, to six of its non-pathogenic relatives.
Their analysis showed the fungus failed to repair DNA damage caused by exposure to UV light. The discovery -- detailed this week in the journal Nature Communications -- could inspire new treatments for the deadly bat disease.
"This research has tremendous implications for bats and people," Tony Ferguson, director of the Forest Service's Northern Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory, said in a news release. "Bats play a key role in the health of forests as well as the production of food in the United States, and developing an array of tools with which we can treat bats for white-nose syndrome is important to preserving these very important species."
The comparison of the genome of P. destructans with those of its relatives suggests the fungus evolved alongside the bats of Europe and Asia for several million years, allowing Eurasian species to develop sufficient defenses. North American bats have yet to evolve immunity.
Comparative genomic techniques showed P. destructans lacks an important DNA repair enzyme. When scientists exposed the fungus to UV light, known to damage DNA, they found the species was highly sensitive.
During experiments, just 15 percent of the fungi survived low doses of UV rays. Moderate UV radiation killed all but 1 percent. Just a few seconds of exposure from a hand-held ultraviolet LED light source is enough to kill most of the fungi.
"It is unusual that P. destructans appears to be unable to repair damage caused by UV-light," said lead study author Jon Palmer, a research botanist in the Northern Research Station's lab in Madison, Wis. "Most organisms that have been found in the absence of light maintain the ability to repair DNA caused by UV light radiation. We are very hopeful that the fungus' extreme vulnerability to UV light can be exploited to manage the disease and save bats."
Scientists are now working on translating the research into an effective treatment solution for bats in the wild.