Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Lethal fungus that causes white-nose syndrome may have Achilles' heel

WISCONSIN — The fungus behind white-nose syndrome, a disease that has killed an estimated 1.5 million bats in North America and continues to spread, may have an Achilles’ heel: ultraviolet light. White-nose syndrome has spread steadily for the past decade and is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, known as P. destructans or Pd.

Photo: One scientist holds a little brown bat and stretches out one wing while another scientist swabs for the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome.
A little brown bat is swabbed for the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, Pseudogymnoascus destructans. Forest Service photo by Daniel Lindner.

A team of scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the University of New Hampshire found that the fungus is highly sensitive to UV light. Jon Palmer, a research botanist with the Northern Research Station in Madison, Wisconsin, is the lead author of the study “Extreme sensitivity to ultra-violet light in the fungal pathogen causing white-nose syndrome of bats,” which was published Jan. 2 in the journal Nature Communications. The study was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is available on the NRS publications page.

Using comparative genomics, the research team noticed that P. destructans lacked a key DNA repair enzyme, prompting them to expose the fungi to DNA damaging agents, including different wavelengths and intensities of UV light. They found that a low dose exposure of UV-C light resulted in about 15 percent survival of P. destructans while a moderate dose exposure resulted in less than 1 percent survival. These values translate to only a few seconds of exposure from a hand-held UV-C light source.

Research on potential treatment using UV light is underway. Daniel Lindner, a research plant pathologist with the Northern Research Station in Madison and the corresponding author on the UV-light study, is leading follow-up research to determine if UV-light can be used as a treatment for bats suffering from white-nose syndrome. The study, which is funded by a grant from the National Fish and Wildife Foundation Bats for the Future Fund, began late last year.

Lindner’s earlier research contributed to development of a highly sensitive DNA-based technique for early identification of P. destructans on bats as well as in soils and on cave walls.