First whole bat genome sequencing gives insight into flight, immunity; could help scientists understand how to mitigate viral infections

Newswise — Bethesda, MD (Dec. 20, 2012) — A breakthrough that will lead to understanding how bats carry very deadly viruses without getting sick has been reported by an international team of researchers who completed the first whole bat genome sequencing. That understanding may shed light on mitigating viral infections and ultimately lead to vaccines for deadly viruses. The results of the study, “Comparative analysis of bat genomes provides insight into the evolution of flight and immunity,” will appear in Science online. The full study will be available following the release of the embargo at 2 p.m. EST, Dec. 20, 2012.

Bats, as a group, have received considerable interest in the scientific community lately because they are reservoirs for a number of dangerous viruses that often prove deadly to humans and animals following infection. Bats have been under study by several groups because of their ability to carry viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, SARS, Hendra, Nipah, and many others. “One of the reasons we started this study was to help us understand how bats can carry such deadly viruses without getting ill,” said Christopher C. Broder, Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases doctoral program at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) here. Previous work with bat-borne viruses by Broder led to the recent development of an animal vaccine against the Hendra virus.

The research efforts initially began small, including Broder at USU, along with Kimberly Bishop-Lilly, Ph.D., a former student from Dr. Broder’s laboratory and USU alumna, and now Deputy Head of the Genomics Department at the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC), together with Linfa Wang, Ph.D. of the CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL). Later, under the international collaborative leadership of Dr. Wang, a corresponding author of the study, the project was able to rapidly accelerate to include investigators at Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), Wuhan Institute of Virology, and the University of Copenhagen.

“Once we understand the differences between bats and other mammals in this regard, some next steps include thinking about how we can reverse-engineer this knowledge to potentially tease out new or novel therapeutic strategies that could be employed for treating human disease,” said Dr. Bishop-Lilly.

The study was a huge undertaking. “The efforts, expertise and resources brought to the table by our other colleagues are what made the completion of this project possible,” said Linfa Wang, Ph.D.

The team used DNA sequencing technology to examine all the genes of two bats, a fruit-eating black flying fox (Pteropus alecto) and an insect-eating David’s Myotis (Myotis davidii) - two species that differ in many regards including habitat, diet, and their ability to echo-locate. Once they had used cutting-edge techniques to produce a full genome sequence for each, they were able to compare them to each other and to other mammalian species as well. They found differences in the way that genes that respond to DNA damage have evolved in bats, as well as differences in genes of the immune system. The researchers hypothesize that these differences are related to the origin of flight and that these genetic differences have consequences for how the bat’s body interacts with viruses in nature.

“This study opens the door for further investigation into the relatively unique biology of bats and how their bodies interact with microbes,” said Dr. Bishop-Lilly. “Our hope is that other scientists can build upon these findings through further comparative genomics and that our findings together will hopefully lead to design of antiviral drugs in the future.”

“Unlike bacterial infections, for which we have a relative plethora of antibiotics to choose from, there are relatively few viruses for which we have drugs that work,” said Dr. Broder. “That’s what makes this research so important – its impact on our understanding of how to mitigate a viral infection.”


About USUThe Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) is the nation’s federal health sciences university. USU students are primarily active duty uniformed officers in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Public Health Service who have received specialized education in tropical and infectious diseases, preventive medicine, TBI and PTSD, disaster response and humanitarian assistance, and acute trauma care. A large percentage of the university’s nearly 5,000 physician and 600 advanced practice nursing alumni are supporting operations around the world, offering their leadership and expertise. The University also has graduate programs in biomedical sciences and public health, most open to civilian and military applicants, and oral biology, committed to excellence in research which have awarded more than 400 doctoral and 900 masters degrees to date. For more information about USU and its programs, visit

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