Research Snapshot: How life in the Soudan Mine could save the Midwest bat population

White Nose Syndrome was recently confirmed in Minnesota and is expected to kill thousands of bats throughout the state. The fungal disease is expected to spread across the United States, causing a domino effect: fewer bats result in an increase in insect populations, potentially leading to billions of dollars in damage to the soybean and corn industries.

The fungus grows on the noses, wings and ears of bats. Bats who are infected wake up during hibernation, causing them to use fat reserves meant to sustain them for the duration of hibernation. This can lead to starvation and death.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota Center for Drug Design are getting closer to finding a solution to the problem. For the past six years, Christine Salomon, Ph.D., and her colleagues have been researching microorganisms living deep in the Soudan Mine in northeast Minnesota.

These microorganisms are capable of living in some of the harsh environments found throughout the mine, including salty, iron rich brines in the mine’s lowest level and other areas with high levels of copper, which is toxic to most life. The hope is that these microorganisms will lead to new treatments for diseases, including White Nose Syndrome.

The team cultures each isolated microorganism from the mine to see if it can either kill or inhibit the growth of the disease-causing fungus. They successfully found 60 active isolates and will now test them to see which ones can grow effectively on various natural surfaces, including bat roosts and bat tissues.

“By collecting samples from actual bats and their roosts, we hope to find microbial species that have the capacity to live and grow there successfully without harm to bats,” Salomon said.

There are currently no viable treatments for White Nose Syndrome, and the option of spraying caves and bat colonies with anti-fungal compounds is not ideal due to the need for regular applications and potential environmental damage. Salomon is hoping to provide a better mechanism for disease control that can protect delicate cave environments.

The Soudan Mine is unique in that it provides an accessible window into unusual bacterial microbial environments. While some of the bacteria species may have been brought into the cave mine from a miner’s boot a hundred years ago, it’s possible that some of the species have existed underground since the cave was first formed within the rock, long before the mine was made. This is vital information for seeing how microorganisms can survive in the cave.

“We know that many microorganisms are now highly adapted to the unusual conditions found in various parts of the mine, such as very salty brines seeping in from underlying rock or extremely high levels of copper and other metals,” Salomon said.

The team is hoping to complete experiments by the end of the summer and begin trials on live hibernating bats in the fall.

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