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Wilson Ring, Associated Press
In this Thursday May 8, 2014 file photo, bats hang from the ceiling of the Aeolus cave in Dorset, Vt. Biologists said field research revealed that up to 98 percent of the tagged little brown bats hibernating in the cave survived the winter, The findings are a glimmer of good news for bats that have been devastated by white nose syndrome, a fungus which has killed millions of bats since 2006. Researchers in Rhode Island may be one step closer to figuring out how the mysterious disease known is killing off bats across North America.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Researchers in Rhode Island may be one step closer to figuring out how a mysterious disease known as white-nose syndrome is killing off bats across North America.

A team of scientists led by Brown University professor Richard Bennett was awarded more than $500,000 from the National Science Foundation to figure out how to combat the disease, named for the white fungus that appears on the noses and wings of bats.

First detected in New York State in 2006, it has killed an estimated 5 million to 6 million bats in 28 states and Canada. Scientists the disease spread from Europe, where bats are more resilient to it.

"It's clear that this is perhaps the biggest decline is wildlife from an infectious agent in the past century," Bennett said.

The syndrome is caused by a cold-loving fungus, pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd, which penetrates tissues of the nose, mouth and wings, compromising the bats' ability to stay hydrated and maintain body temperature.

Bennett's lab, which typically studies human fungal infections, is focusing on the substance the fungus secretes. The team has partnered with a pair of University of California researchers.

"A lot of these pathogenic fungi, that's how they cause disease, they secrete," Bennett said. "We're looking at those potential factors that could allow it to cause disease in a bat. It's a relatively new direction for us."

Bennett's team has been sending samples to Giselle Knudsen, an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who identifies the proteins secreted by the fungi.

The team believes the secretion could be degrading the bats' tissue and also helping the fungus penetrate into the tissue.

Bennett and his colleagues published a paper in April on their findings. Ultimately, the team hopes to treat the infected bats.

"I don't envision giving drugs to bats, but there may be a clever way to do something," Knudsen said. "It's such a dire prediction, we have to do something. Even if it's awkward and silly, I think someone clever will think of a way to perhaps spray a bat cave with some sort of antifungal agent."

The next step for Bennett's lab will be getting bat tissue samples to see how the secretion might change on a bat.

For now, there are no bats in the lab — just the fungi, which the researchers are growing in a converted wine cooler to save money, Bennett said.

The National Science Foundation currently funds 6 research projects on white-nose syndrome totaling nearly $3 million. NSF, a federal agency, funds projects that address basic biological questions and have broader impacts of interest to society, such as white-nose syndrome, the foundation said.

Sam Scheiner, program director of environmental biology at NSF, said researching white-nose syndrome is important because the disease has led to the disappearance of many bats, which play a major role in the ecosystem as a predator of insects. It's also important, he said, in helping researchers understand how diseases spread.

"White-nose syndrome is not the first, nor will it be the last, disease that's going to come to North America," Scheiner said.