Unlocking the secret behind long lived bats

Scientists have identified part of the molecular mechanism that gives myotis bats their extraordinary lifespans compared to other animals.

The University of Bristol reports the study, co-authored by Professor Gareth Jones and Dr Roger Ransome from the University of Bristol’s Bat Ecology and Bioacoustics Lab, has been published in Science Advances.

The findings point to the protective structures at the end of chromosomes, called telomeres. According to the international team of scientists, in myotis, the longest lived species of bats, telomeres don’t shorten with age. In other bats species, humans and other animals they do, causing the age-related breakdown of cells that over the course of a lifetime can drive tissue deterioration and ultimately death.

To conduct the study, researchers took 3mm wing biopsies from about five hundred wild bats from across four species that they captured, marked and released. The samples were flash frozen in liquid nitrogen or desiccated using silica beads. High molecular weight DNA was extracted, and change in telomere length was assessed.

Dr Nicole Foley from the University College Dublin, the lead author of the study, said “Our results show that telomeres shorten with age in two of the bat species (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum and Miniopterus schreibersii), typical of most mammals. But in the longest-lived species of bats (Myotis), we did not detect any evidence that their telomeres shorten with age, contrary to all expectations.”

To uncover how myotis bats can maintain their telomeres over time, they compared their genomes with those of fifty two other mammals, focusing on two hundred and twenty five genes associated with the maintenance of telomeres.

Senior author, Professor Emma Teeling, also from University College Dublin, said “Our results suggest that long-lived bats have evolved better mechanisms to prevent and repair age induced cellular damage. In particular two genes ATM, SETX may drive this. Bats showed no expression of telomerase but rather, may have evolved a unique process to lengthen their chromosomes without inducing cancer. These are exciting new results that we need to further explore to uncover how bats can remain healthy as time passes.”

The results of the study are a first step in helping to understand the molecular mechanisms bats have evolved that underlie their unusual and long, lifespans. Studying wild bats in an ageing context may provide exciting new solutions to slow down the ageing process and ultimately extend human healthspans.

Roger Ransome, an Honorary Researcher at the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, has been ringing and monitoring the greater horseshoe bats at Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire for over sixty years.

Gareth Jones has helped genotype the bats born there for 25 years. He said “This is one of the longest running studies on a wild mammal study worldwide, and the oldest bat in the population is now 25 years old. The long-term nature of the study provided valuable data for understanding telomere dynamics and ageing in these remarkably long-lived mammals.”

The study involving ten different research and conservation institutes from across five different countries was funded by the European Research Council and included bat biologists from Ireland, France, Portugal, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

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