This is some of the research that contributed to the recently released Darwin’s Paradox: An international science mystery. http://amzn.to/2k8qJgi. Bats have a major role in this books, also the people who try to protect them when they become a target of fearful people during the pandemic.
Could Bats be the Pharmacopoeia of the Future?
Bats have long been considered a threat to humans, but it might be time for that to change.
Of the almost 5,000 mammal species, about 20% are bats, chiroptera (KIE-ROP-TER-A) to be scientific. There are more bats species than any other order except rodents, and they inhabit every continent except Antarctica. Bats are everywhere, and they’re nocturnal, and they fly. What could be scarier than 1,000 species of bats flying into your nightmares?
How about over 3,000 species of viruses? The International Committee of Taxonomy of Viruses has identified over 3,000 virus species. Unfortunately, a large number of the viruses that are dangerous to people spend their vacations with bats. The list of viruses that are hosted by bats is both long and scary: hepaciviruses, pegiviruses, influenza A virus, hantavirus, paramyxoviruses, and of course lyssaviruses which include rabies.
Besides the viral threat, bats are vampires, as every school child can tell you. NOT! Only 3% of the bat species are vampires, and those are isolated to south and central America.
Recall the major pandemics (Black Plague, Spanish Flu, HIV/AIDS)? All caused by viruses. People die from viruses. Bats host viruses. Bats and Rats … maybe we’d be better off if we killed them all?
This has been the myth, legend, and superstition for millennia. With modern science, it’s time to reconsider.
Science is now asking the question, “Why do viruses that infect and kill humans and other mammals exist benignly in bats?”
If scientists can answer this question, find what protects the bats, we might be able to prevent future pandemics and even cure the common cold.
Chiroptera differ from other mammals in several ways. First, bats reached their current evolutionary point over 33.5 million years ago, while other mammals continued to evolve. Felines didn’t even appear until about 25 million years ago, and people, homo sapiens sapiens, didn’t show up until a few hundred thousand years ago.
This might explain why bats are better at dealing with viruses. Some scientists suggest that given 30 million years bats had time to evolve better defenses than we could in a few hundred thousand. Bats also had strong evolutionary pressures since they live in large, dense colonies – ideal for spreading viral infections. This is very different from primates which evolved in small isolated groups.
Others suggest that it’s just a numbers game. Given a thousand species of bats, to our one, they had a better chance to get lucky. This is supported by the rodents which have even more species and also host lots of viruses.
The third line of investigation is the high metabolism required for flight. This, combined with the observation that bats don’t seem to get cancer, leads to the hypothesis that their DNA repair mechanisms work faster and better.
This third hypothesis brings up another bat anomaly: not only are they more resistant to viral diseases, but they also live longer than expected. Are these two related? Maybe?
Regardless, the denizens of Chiroptera have antiviral secrets that we need and science is working to find them. Today more scientists study the biology of bats, and more bats are getting their DNA sequenced. Perhaps soon we will live longer and healthier because of those scary, night flying, echolocating bats.