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Bat Study Could Provide Clues to Coronavirus


A new study led by Stony Brook’s Liliana Dávalos will investigate why some bat species seem to carry coronaviruses but are rarely affected by them.

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with a one-year grant, will look at how viruses affect cells upon entry into the bat host’s nasal passages to explain why symptomatic disease does not occur.

Liliana Davalos

While many similar studies of viruses in bats focus on the host’s immune system, this study centers on goblet cells, which produce mucus in the nasal passages. Goblet cells are present in bat noses, and researchers hypothesize that there must be a difference in how coronaviruses attack these cells in bats versus humans.

“There is much to learn about the cells viruses attack upon entry,” said Dávalos, a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Because of the acute respiratory symptoms and the curious loss of the sense of smell in some human patients with COVID-19,  there is a hint that cells in the nasal passage are afflicted first,” she said.

To test their hypothesis and to understand how the lining, or epithelium, is modified in bats compared to humans, the researchers will compare proteins, DNA and histology of bats to humans and mice. The work will highlight the role of goblet cells, which have immune and inflammatory functions, as critical for infection from-versus resistance to viral attack. They will use bat tissue samples from the Dávalos lab, as well as published data sets from human and mice nasal tissues samples.

Findings from the research will also enable health agencies worldwide to better survey bat populations and potentially help to prevent further pandemics similar to COVID-19. More information is available on the NSF website.

Collaborating investigators include Laurel Yohe of Yale University and Angelique Corthals of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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  • Is this bat study at the cellular/genetic level? Will it investigate how the virus attaches to cells in the bats nasal passage? Is there a goal to ultimately select potential medicines that could effectively block the attachment of the virus to the nasal cells?

  • This study focuses on gene expression by quantifying RNA transcripts and proteins from tissue. Although we will not have molecular profiles from individual cells, goblet cells will be marked using histological techniques. The combined molecular and histological profile of various tissues will characterize regions with potential for betacoronavirus entry and replication. The goal of this particular study is not to select potential medicines, but our work will provide the groundwork for both future experimental tests and the development of medicines to reduce viral replication in the nasal passage. See the link to the NSF website above for more information.

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