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How unlocking the secrets of bat immunity can help us fight coronavirus

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After sequencing the genome of various species of bats, scientists are hopeful that they will open the way to a treatment for this and future pandemics

Did you know that bats can live up to 40 years?

Photo: Huw Evans picture agency

The exceptional immunity of bats allows them to live with the coronavirus without falling ill. And the secret may be in its genetic code.

That is why a group of scientists, after sequencing the genome of six species of bats, hopes to be able to use that information to open paths for the treatment of this and future pandemics.

Emma Teeling, a professor at University College Dublin, notes that the “exquisite” genome sequences they have deciphered suggest that bats have “unique immune systems”.

“If we could mimic bats’ immune response to viruses they can tolerate, then we could aim to find a cure,” he told the BBC.

The expert points out that now we have the tools to understand the steps that must be taken.

“We need to develop the drugs to do it,” he adds.

Bat

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Bats are not blind; they have a very special “vision” system.

Teeling is co-founder of the Bat1K project, whose goal is to decode the genomes of 1,421 bat species known.

“These genomes are the tools necessary to identify the genetic solutions developed in bats that could ultimately be used to alleviate aging and human disease,” he said.

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COVID-19 is believed to have arisen in bats and passed to humans through another, as yet unidentified, animal.

A number of other viral diseases, such as SARS, MERS, and Ebola, are also estimated to have jumped humans in this way.

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Ecologists and conservationists have warned that bats should not be chased and that when they are not disturbed in their natural habitats they pose little risk to human health.

AND they are vital to the balance of nature.

Many are pollinators, disperse the seeds of the fruit, and others are insectivores, eating millions of tons of insects per night.

What do the genomes reveal?

Six species of bats were sequenced:

  • the big horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum),
  • the Egyptian fruit bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus),
  • the spear-nosed bat (Phyllostomus discolor),
  • the big buzzard bat (Myotis myotis)
  • the light-edged bat (Pipistrellus kuhlii)
  • and the velvety free-tailed bat (Molossus molossus).

By comparing bats to 42 other mammals, they were able to discover where these animals are found within the tree of life.

Bats appear to be more closely related to a group consisting of carnivores (dogs, cats, and seals, among other species), pangolins, whales, and ungulates (hoofed mammals).

A trace of the genetic differences identified regions of the genome that evolved differently in bats, which may explain their unique abilities.

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The research work revealed genes that may have contributed to echolocation (calculating distances through sound), which bats use to hunt and navigate in complete darkness.

How might this information help combat current and future pandemics?

The study has implications for human health and disease, revealing a host of genetic changes that protect bats from viruses.

Bats, 2014

Barcroft Media / Getty Images
They usually live in colonies made up of millions of individuals.

The researchers think that knowing the genomes of bats could help explain how flying mammals tolerate coronavirus infections, which may help fight pandemics in the future.

“These changes may contribute to bats’ exceptional immunity and points to their tolerance to coronaviruses,” said Michael Hiller of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany.

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In many viral infections, it is not the virus itself that leads to death, but the acute inflammatory response elicited by the body’s immune system.

Bats can control this. So while they may be infected, they show no visible signs of disease.

This research is published in the journal Nature.

Links to more articles on coronavirus

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