A group of hibernating little brown bats in an abandoned copper mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Image credit: Giorgia Auteri

Kudos to U-M EEB graduate student Giorgia Auteri who won this year's Outstanding Graduate Student Paper Award from the department for her first-authored paper published in Scientific Reports.

Coauthored with her advisor Professor Lacey Knowles, their study reports genetic adaptations of little brown bats in the face of white-nose syndrome. The paper was published Feb. 20, 2020.  

The paper, which received widespread media attention and was a University of Michigan Gateway feature, presents the first genetic evidence of resistance in some bats to white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that has decimated some North American bat populations.

The study involved northern Michigan populations of the little brown bat, one of the most common bats in eastern North America prior to the arrival of white-nose syndrome in 2006. Since then, some populations of the small, insect-eating bat have experienced declines of more than 90 percent.

“Because we found differences in genes associated with regulating hibernation and breakdown of fats, it could be that bats that are genetically predisposed to be a little bit fatter or to sleep more deeply are less susceptible to the disease,” said Auteri.

The selection committee, composed of EEB postdocs Samuel Borstein, Patrick Clay and Monique Weemstra, wrote, "This study is of broad interest to readers of a variety of backgrounds as it combines cutting edge molecular methods, genomics, adaptation and conservation to generate results that will be informative in protecting little brown bats from extinction.

“This paper was clearly and concisely written which made it easy for scientists from different backgrounds to grasp the relevance, novelty and approach of this study. We were
especially impressed that the authors clearly connected their genetic results to the ecology of bats and white-nose syndrome. Further, they did a good job outlining both the benefits and caveats of their findings for the conservation dangers that bats are facing. This study was timely given the danger of white-nose syndrome to bats and seems to have taken a novel approach to look at evolutionary changes in these bats in response to white-nose syndrome."

Read more in previous EEB web news from a Michigan News press release, including a video

Some of the media attention includes: Mental Floss, WCMU public radio, Cottage Life and an invited Behind the Paper blog post for the Nature Ecology & Evolution blog.

Compiled by Gail Kuhnlein