Bats’ genes can help them fight off coronaviruses, study suggests

Genes that allow bats to fight off deadly diseases such as coronaviruses have been uncovered by a team of global scientists, according to a study.

Researchers generated and analysed six highly accurate genomes, which start to uncover bats’ ability as mammals to fly, survive fatal infections and navigate complete darkness using sound – known as echolocation.

The global scientists’ consortium, known as Bat1K, believes these genetic materials could be used as tools to identify the solutions evolved in bats and could be harnessed to alleviate human ageing and disease.

Max Planck, senior author of the study, of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, said: “Our genome scans revealed changes in hearing genes that may contribute to echolocation, which bats use to hunt and navigate in complete darkness.

“Furthermore, we found expansions of anti-viral genes, unique selection on immune genes and loss of genes involved in inflammation in bats.

“These changes may contribute to bats’ exceptional immunity and points to their tolerance of coronaviruses.”

Scientists discovered “fossilised viruses” in the DNA, which they believe is evidence of surviving past viral infections.

They say this shows bat genomes contain a higher diversity than other species, providing a record of historical tolerance to viral infection.

The team used new technologies to sequence the bats’ DNA to gather the genomes.

New methods were then developed to assemble these pieces into the correct order and to identify the genes present.

Senior author Dr Sonja Vernes, Bat1K co-founding director and UK Research and Innovation Fellow at St Andrews University, said: “These are the first reference-quality genomes for bats.

“Having such complete and well annotated genomes allowed us unprecedented insight into the genetic and evolutionary abilities seen in bats.”

The study can be found in the Nature journal.

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