Big data is changing the way we address a lot of questions in science, especially for biology. I want our students to have the experience and the tools that they need to work with that kind of data analysis.
“The devastation that white-nose syndrome has caused North American bats has taught us some of the unfortunate consequences of having a world that’s better connected,” says Professor Ken Field, biology.
The disease, a fungal infection that has caused sharp declines in North American bats, is believed to have been accidentally introduced to a cavern near Albany, N.Y., by humans who visited Europe or Asia. Since its discovery in 2006, the disease has spread across the eastern U.S. and Canada and was more recently discovered on the West Coast, where it was probably transported by humans again.
Field is studying the disease’s spread from the front line, using both traditional and cutting-edge biologists’ tools to probe how the infection has impacted different species of bat. He has collected live bats both infected and uninfected from caves as far away as Kentucky, Michigan and Montana, as well as more locally in Pennsylvania, and uses next-generation DNA sequencing to search for differences in the genomes of bats that can withstand white-nose and those that can’t.
Field wants to know if there is “something about the bats that are surviving that they can then pass down to their offspring, creating generations of bats that have evolved to resist this persistent infection.”
“There’s reason to think that could happen, because bats in Europe are exposed to this fungus all the time, and they don’t die from it,” he says. “We suspect that they’ve coevolved with the fungus, and we’re looking to see whether or not that might happen here in North America.”
Field, who works closely in his research with Professor DeeAnn Reeder, biology, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, involves student researchers in his work whenever possible, both in collecting and raising bats and in analyzing genomic data. Learning techniques for decoding DNA data is valuable for students intending to pursue careers in medicine, a field genomics has revolutionized, Field says.
“Big data is changing the way we address a lot of questions in science, especially for biology,” Field says. “I want our students to have the experience and the tools that they need to work with that kind of data analysis.”
Field notes that in recent years zoonotic pandemics similar to white-nose have affected amphibian, snake and bee populations. While he isn’t optimistic about finding a cure for white-nose, Field believes that by better understanding how these diseases spread and how animal populations respond, we can develop better ways to mitigate their impact.
“We’re also studying the possibility that humans could also be affected by other diseases carried by bats,” he says. “There’s reason to think that by better understanding the spread of disease, we can better prevent that type of spillover event.”
While white-nose has been devastating, Field doesn’t believe all North America’s bats are headed for extinction. Although some species are seriously threatened, others that haven’t been affected or can withstand the infection, such as the big brown bat, could end up benefitting from the reduced competition.
“In the end, we may end up with bats filling our night skies again — they may just be a little bit bigger than they used to be,” he says.
Updated Sept. 23, 2016