|Vishnu Chaturvedi just won a major research grant from|
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Vishnu Chaturvedi is searching the vast kingdom of fungi for a silver bullet against a plague that has killed millions of bats throughout the Northeast since appearing in a Schoharie County cave.
At labs in the Wadsworth Center of the state Department of Health, incubators designed to mimic the bats' chilly underground world of caves and mines are slowly growing several hundred kinds of fungus.
The hope is that one may be able to overcome the fungus Geomyces destructans — which is behind a deadly disorder called white-nose syndrome (WNS) that infests caves where bats gather for winter hibernation, said Chaturvedi, head of the mycology department at Wadsworth.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently gave Wadsworth an $80,000 grant to support the work, on top of a $95,000 grant in 2011. This year's grant to Wadsworth was among $1.4 million given by the federal government to study WNS, the fungus and how it affects bats.
Caused by a cave-dwelling, cold-loving fungus, white-nose syndrome causes hibernating bats to wake up early and either freeze or starve when they leave caves in a futile hunt for insects to eat.
Since WNS first appeared in Howes Cave, Schoharie County, in 2006, federal wildlife officials have been searching unsuccessfully for a way to stop it and stem the loss of bats. Bats provide natural pest control that benefits farmers. They also help to reduce the population of mosquitoes and other insects that can spread disease to people.
Researchers speculate the fungus, which gives infected bats a distinctive fuzzy white patch around their noses and mouths, was unintentionally brought into caves by human explorers.
The disorder has since spread unchecked into 19 states and four Canadian provinces and threatens to drive some bat species to regional extinction, with federal officials estimating in January that up to 6.7 million bats have already died. WNS has spread into caves as far south as Alabama, as far west as Missouri and as far north as Maine, and northern Ontario.
"We need to find a way to break the cycle, so that bats can return to caves that are no longer infected with the (WNS) fungus," said Chaturvedi. "We are looking at other fungus as a biological control."
Over the next several months, his lab will test two types of fungus already used commercially in farms, nurseries and greenhouses to protect crops like potatoes and apples from other destructive fungi, he said.
Also being grown are several hundred fungus taken last summer from a half-dozen bat caves in New York and Vermont. These also will be tested to see if they can inhibit the WNS fungus.
Worldwide, there are more than 1.5 million species of fungi, plant-like organisms that actually have more in common with animals than plants. Most fungus are not understood; so far, just 100,000 species have been fully described by researchers.
"The goal is that by the end of the year, we will provide our results to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services," said Chaturvedi. If any fungus appears promising, it could be applied to an infected cave as a field trial in the spring of 2013.
He said an effective fungus could inhibit the WNS fungus in one of four ways — it could outcompete it by growing faster and crowding out the WNS fungus, it could release antibiotic compounds that could kill it, it could release substances that interfere with the WNS fungus reproduction or it could directly attack the WNS fungus and break it down for nutrition.
Source: Times Union