Scientists at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York studied bats in Belize and found that genes give the animals extraordinary resistance to viral infections and cancer. This discovery could help us understand disease, immunity and even aging in humans.
Bats (Chiroptera) are an order of placental mammals, including approximately 1,360 species. Through evolution, these animals have acquired unusual features – they are the only mammals that can fly. Moreover, considering their small size, they live exceptionally long and can use echolocation. However, their most unusual feature may be invisible at first glance. We are talking about the immune system of these animals. Genetic analysis of Belizean bat samples from the American Museum of Natural HistoryArtibeus jamaicensis) and the funnel-lipped barnacle (Pteronotus parnellii) showed that some genes key to the immune system give these animals exceptional antiviral and anticancer immunity. The creation of these genes is the result of particularly rapid evolution, researchers believe. – We did not know that immune system genes in bats are so positively selected. Bats have various unusual features. They don’t react to infections the same way we do. Given this new knowledge, it should not be surprising that differences in the functioning of the immune system may be related to both aging and cancer, said Professor W. Richard McCombie of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, co-author of the work, which appeared in September in the journal “Genome Biology and Evolution”.
Production of alpha and omega interferons
One of the main features that distinguishes the bats’ immune system concerns the production of alpha and omega interferons, which, among other things, are involved in inflammation. The action of interferons inhibits the proliferation (reproduction) of virus-infected cells.
– Bats suppress the alarm of the immune system by getting rid of the genes encoding interferon-alpha – explains Dr. Armin Scheben, one of the authors of the study. – This may be responsible for their high viral tolerance. It prevents excessive immune reactions that harm healthy tissues, one of the reasons why infections are so harmful to humans – explains the specialist, quoted on the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory website. Changes were also detected in six genes responsible for DNA repair and 46 genes responsible for limiting tumor growth. ‘Our work shows how deeply interconnected immunity and cancer responses are. The same immune genes and proteins play important roles in resistance to cancer, points out Dr. Scheben. Now researchers are checking how these genes are regulated and how they work in different parts of the bats’ body. They hope their work will provide new insights into the links between immunity, aging and cancer. – There are still many unknowns – said prof. Adam Siepel, another research participant. “Ultimately, we will take our work as far as we can and pass the baton to disease experts who will work to develop drugs or other treatments,” he added.
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