White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in the United States, threatening to disrupt the country’s ecosystem. Since its introduction in the mid-2000s from Europe, the fungus has plagued the hibernating mosquito eaters.
A student group from Missouri University of Science and Technology is trying to prevent the disease’s spread at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation (iGEM) competition. The Missouri S&T student chapter of iGEM will present research findings on white-nose syndrome for the second year in a row at the iGEM Giant Jamboree, a collegiate conference where approximately 250 teams share research results. The event will be held Oct. 27-31 in Boston.
Teams compete to earn a high certification ranking. At the event, the Missouri S&T team will give an oral presentation of its research project to a panel of judges and exhibit a poster for review. Teams are individually ranked based on their work. The competition is not head-to-head, so theoretically every team competing could earn the highest rating available.
Last year, Missouri S&T earned a bronze certification ranking for its work with white-nose syndrome. Earning the ranking involved the team documenting a new part for iGEM’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts.
White-nose syndrome, caused by a fungus known as “Pseudogymnoascus destructans,” disturbs bats’ winter hibernation, which leads to death in most infected species. Missouri S&T’s team is trying to defend the bats by slowing the fungus growth, lessening its effects and giving the bats more time to hibernate through the entire winter, rather than waking early. If they wake early, many bats starve to death because their main food source, small flying bugs such as mosquitos, have not yet hatched.
The Missouri S&T project proposes the use of ocimene, a compound found in oranges, as a way of combating the disease’s spread. Ocimene has been shown to slow fungal growth, potentially permitting bats to hibernate for their full cycle and allowing their immune systems to begin combating the disease naturally.
The team is also searching for compounds to inhibit the destruction of the bat’s skin and a sensing mechanism to detect the presence of the fungus in caves. With these approaches, the team will disturb the natural habitat of the caves as little as possible while not allowing the fungus to develop immunity to the compound.
iGEM is one of 15 student design teams in Missouri S&T’s Student Design and Experiential Learning Center. To learn more about the iGEM team or its project, visit igem.mst.edu.