White-nose syndrome (WNS) is considered to be the deadliest disease of any mammal in history, resulting in more than 6 million deaths among North American bats.
The causal agent of the emerging disease is the cold-loving fungal pathogen Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which colonizes the bat’s skin to elicit distinctive growths around their muzzles and wings.
Because the pathogen is unable to grow above 23°C, the mechanisms behind it’s spread and the extent of its adaptation to different geographic and ecological niches remain unknown.
In a study led by PhD student Adrian Forsythe of Prof. Jianping Xu’s lab at McMaster University, the geographic variation among strains of the WNS pathogen was examined, as well as the potential evidence for their adaptation along geographic gradients of eastern North America.
Their analyses found that despite the pathogens recent arrival to North America, substantial evolution and phenotypic diversification has already occurred over the course of the disease’s expansion.
The team’s results suggest the urgent need for both stronger conservation efforts to better protect North American bats, and a greater understanding of P. destructans diversification in order to help control the spread of disease.