Distribution and Environmental Persistence of the Causative Agent of White-Nose Syndrome, Geomyces destructans, in Bat Hibernacula of the Eastern United States
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White-nose syndrome (WNS) is an emerging disease of hibernating bats caused by the recently described fungus Geomyces destructans. First isolated in 2008, the origins of this fungus in North America and its ability to persist in the environment remain undefined. To investigate the correlation between manifestation of WNS and distribution of G. destructans in the United States, we analyzed sediment samples collected from 55 bat hibernacula (caves and mines) both within and outside the known range of WNS using a newly developed real-time PCR assay. Geomyces destructans was detected in 17 of 21 sites within the known range of WNS at the time when the samples were collected; the fungus was not found in 28 sites beyond the known range of the disease at the time when environmental samples were collected. These data indicate that the distribution of G. destructans is correlated with disease in hibernating bats and support the hypothesis that the fungus is likely an exotic species in North America. Additionally, we examined whether G. destructans persists in infested bat hibernacula when bats are absent. Sediment samples were collected from 14 WNS-positive hibernacula, and the samples were screened for viable fungus by using a culture technique. Viable G. destructans was cultivated from 7 of the 14 sites sampled during late summer, when bats were no longer in hibernation, suggesting that the fungus can persist in the environment in the absence of bat hosts for long periods of time.