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Potential solution to white nose syndrome in bats among projects at SMU research expo

Clarissa Sit, an associate professor in chemistry at Saint Mary’s University, is studying the potential of a substance found in Ontario to naturally help bats battle the fungus that causes white nose syndrome. 
Stuart Peddle / the Chronicle Herald.
Clarissa Sit, an associate professor in chemistry at Saint Mary’s University, is studying the potential of a substance found in Ontario to naturally help bats battle the fungus that causes white nose syndrome. - Stuart Peddle

HALIFAX, N.S. —

Stuart Peddle

The Chronicle Herald

speddle@herald.ca

@Guylafur

Saint Mary's University chemistry researchers are checking into a substance that may help bats overcome the white nose syndrome that has devastated wild populations in North America, including Nova Scotia.

Clarissa Sit, an associate professor in chemistry at Saint Mary's, said the research is just one project her department is exploring among a number of leads as they look for natural solutions to health problems in humans and animals as well as crop production in plants.

"The end goal is we're trying to find new drugs for treatment of human infections as well as animal infections," Sit said of her department's overall efforts, which include examining bacteria and potential antibiotic substances in bees and other natural sources.

The research was among a number of projects highlighted on Friday at a science expo at the Halifax institution. Other projects included climate research like salt-marsh wetlands reclamation work, toxic metal and invasive species research, community resilience in environmental science, work-family balance and distributive justice in social science, creating healthy workplaces, and much more.

With bats, white nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that attacks a bat's skin as it hibernates. As the name suggests, it appears as white fuzz on the nose of an infected animal. It wakes the bats too early from their hibernation and burns off the fat reserves that they need to survive the winter.

"We've had a couple of hits that we're looking into that seem to be quite promising," Sit said as researchers set up displays of their various projects in SMU's Loyola Conference Hall.

She said they've found another strain of naturally occurring fungus in soil near bat caves in Ontario that might be able to compete with - or actually kill - the fungus that causes white nose syndrome.

"And so the hope is that either we look at the compounds that are doing the killing or actually apply the actual biological organism itself," she said. "We're in the process of discovering what it is that is causing the activity or the killing effect and sort of doing further testing on that."

While the syndrome originated in Europe, Sit said the various species of bats over there seem to have a tolerance for it, although researchers are not sure if it's because of the other microbes they carry or that the European bats are bigger, with more body mass, so are less vulnerable to starvation and the other deleterious effects of the infection.

"So the hope is that if we can sort of arm (North American bats) with a better sort of microbiome, maybe that will help the population sort of come back," Sit said. "Because the issue is that sometimes even if they're infected one winter and they survive it, it doesn't necessarily mean that they'll survive the next round. So that's sort of a scary thing right now."

She said they are trying to find something that is as close to what they're naturally exposed to as possible so if something is applied, it's not going to cause further harm.

Sit said her grad student researchers are in the process of exploring the characteristics of the discovery.

"I think there's a lot of promising results that are coming about, so hopefully in the next year or so we'll have a couple of publications out about that."

She said if the research leads to something that can be applied to the mammals, they will probably collaborate with other Canadian and American research groups that are doing testing on bats, themselves.

"We're mainly doing the nitty-gritty lab work, but if we think that the two strains that we have are really promising, then we'll send it over to have them tested on their bats."

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