Could a bacteria that grows naturally on the skin of some bats become a valuable weapon against a deadly fungus that continues to decimate bat populations?

That's the hope springing from a paper published April 8 in the journal PLOS ONE by researchers from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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The researchers, led by graduate student Joseph Hoyt, tested bacteria from the skin of four bat species to see to what degree they could suppress white-nose syndrome, a death-dealing fungus first seen in New York State in 2006 that has wiped out more than 90 percent of bat populations in some regions.

The scientists reported that six of the bacteria they isolated were able to significantly inhibit the growth of the fungus in petri dishes, while two were particularly successful at suppressing it for more than 35 days.

"What's promising is that the bacteria that can inhibit the fungus naturally occur on the skin of bats," said Hoyt in a press release. "These bacteria may just be at too low a level to have an effect on the disease, but augmenting them to higher abundances may provide a beneficial effect."

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The fungus behind white-nose syndrome, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, attacks a bat's nose, ears, and wings while it hibernates, when the animal's temperature is at its lowest.

Even though white-nose syndrome can affect nearly every bat in a hibernating colony, previous work by study co-author Marm Kilpatrick has shown that if bats can get through the winter they can clear the infection when they warm up and emerge from hibernation.

Hoyt and his team hope a spray concocted from the white-nose-fighting bacteria could be applied to bats as they hibernate. If the substance could keep the fungus at bay long enough to get the bats through the winter, then the animals' chances for survival increase.

"The potential for a treatment is exciting, because this disease is raging across the country," said Kilpatrick, who cited the northern long-eared bat, which may be headed for extinction because of white-nose syndrome. "Everywhere the disease has been for a couple of years, this bat is gone. We don't have any tools right now to protect this species."

Help may be on the way, however.

The researchers have left the petri dishes behind and are now experimenting with living subjects. "We are analyzing data from tests on live bats now, and if the results are positive, the next step would be a small field trial," said Hoyt.