Kapow! Can bat genes knock out cancer?

2 minute read

There’s lots we can learn from the super immunity of our mammalian mates.

From Count Dracula to Batfink to the numerous iterations of the Caped Crusader, nature’s only flying mammals hold a special fascination in the human imagination.

Moreover, while the blood-sucking and crime-fighting capers are impressive and entertaining, actual bats are arguably even more remarkable critters than their movie and TV creations.       

Not only do they live longer than most animals of their size, their immune systems are incredibly robust, protecting them from viruses, such as ebola and covid, which cause carnage in humans.

It is this latter capability which scientists believe could ultimately improve disease treatments and save more lives than Batman and Robin could ever hope to.

The key to understanding how bats might become such lifesavers lies in sequencing their genomes, something American scientists have now done for two species of bats found the South American nation of Belize: the Jamaican fruit bat and the delightfully named Mesoamerican moustached bat. 

Publishing in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution, boffins from the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory say that when they compared the two bat genomes with other mammals, they found that rapid evolution had streamlined bat genomes to protect against infections – and immune overreactions to them – and, importantly, cancers.

Using something called Oxford Nanopore sequencing technology, the researchers compared the Belize bat genome sequences with 15 other bat and mammal genomes, including humans.

This work revealed an unknown shift in levels of two inflammatory protein-coding genes called interferon-alpha and interferon-omega.

“Bats have dialled down the immune system’s alarm by shedding genes that produce interferon-alpha,” CSHL researcher Armin Scheben told media.

“This may be responsible for their high viral tolerance. It prevents overactive immune responses that harm healthy tissue – one of the reasons infections are so damaging to humans.”

The researchers also found that compared with other mammals, bat genomes contain more changes in cancer-related genes, including six that repair DNA and 46 that suppress tumours.

By now looking at how these immune genes are regulated and expressed, the scientists hope they may be able to discover insights into the links between immunity, ageing and cancer in humans.

To which we can only say: “Holy Pteronotus mesoamericanus, Batman! Let’s hope our batty boffins can help crack that code!”

Shine a story-shaped beacon at penny@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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