Unlocking a molecular secret behind bat longevity

Scientists have identified part of the molecular mechanism that gives a long-lived bat species its extraordinary lifespan compared to other animals.

The findings, published in the journal Science Advances, point to a key role for protective structures at the end of chromosomes, called telomeres.

According to the international team of scientists, including Dr Mary O’Connell from the School of Biology at Leeds, in the Myotis species of bats – which are known to have the longest lifespan in the bat world – telomeres do not shorten with age.

In other bats species, humans and other animals, telomeres have been observed to shorten as the animal ages. This is connected to 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 some 500 wild bats from across four species they captured, marked and released.

The samples were flash frozen in liquid nitrogen or desiccated using silica beads, before high-molecular weight DNA was extracted, and any changes in telomere length were assessed.

“Our results show that telomeres shorten with age in two of the bat species (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum and Miniopterus schreibersii), typical of most mammals,” says Dr Nicole Foley of University College Dublin, Ireland, the lead author of the study.

“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.”

At Leeds, Dr O’Connell carried out an analysis of protein coding sequences as part of the research, to explain which proteins were most likely to have changed their functions in one type of bat as opposed to the others.

Her contribution to the study meant the team could determine if there were genes that had contributed to increased lifespan.

Dr O’Connell said: “Studying the genomes of a wide variety of organisms, as well as those that scientists traditionally rely on, is key to understanding biomedically important traits, such as increased longevity without the greater risk of disease associated with longer life span, reduced or low risk of cancer, and many others."

To uncover how the long-lived species of bats can maintain their telomeres over time, the researchers compared their genomes with those of 52 other mammals, focusing on 225 genes associated with the maintenance of telomeres.

“Our results suggest that long-lived bats have evolved better mechanisms to prevent and repair age-induced cellular damage. In particular two genes ATM and SETX may drive this,” said Professor Emma Teeling from University College Dublin, senior author of the research paper.

Professor Teeling added: “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 scientists to understand the molecular mechanisms bats have evolved that underlie their unusual and long, life-spans.

Studying wild bats in an ageing context may provide exciting new solutions to slow down the ageing process and ultimately extend human health spans.

The study involving 10 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.

Further information

Both image shows a Myotis bat in flight. Credit: Olivier Farcy

Journalists with questions should contact Peter Le Riche in the University of Leeds press office on +44(0)113 343 2049 or email p.leriche@leeds.ac.uk

Contributing institutes of the international team were: University College Dublin, Ireland; Bretagne Vivante, Brittany; France; University of Greifswald, Germany; INRA, Rennes, France; University of Bristol; University of Porto, Portugal; University of Lisbon, Portugal; Institute for Nature Conservation and Forestry, Lisbon, Portugal; University of Leeds; University of Toulouse III-Paul Sabatier, France.