Bats to fight pandemics from the CETAF COVID19 TaskForce


CETAF COVID-19 TaskForce's partner Natural History Museum of London digitised over 8000 bat specimens: a huge amount of information to help mitigate the risk of future pandemics


The NHM of London announces on World Health Day (07 April 2022), that it has completed digitising over 8000 bat specimens from three bat families as part of its tasks in the CETAF COVID19 TaskForce

Data created through digitisation can be used to learn more about the evolution of viruses and immunology in bats, and help mitigate the risk of future pandemics

The Museum collections provide a unique record of where bat populations have existed over space and time

The Natural History Museum of London has completed creating digital records of over 8000 bat specimens, providing a unique record of where bat populations have existed over time. This project was initiated by the Consortium of European Taxonomic Facilities (CETAF) COVID-19 taskforce, and funded by SYNTHESYS + Virtual Access. These data will be openly available online, providing a resource that researchers studying viruses can use to identify specimens of interest. This research has the potential to tell us more about the evolution of viruses and immunology in bats to better understand human health, and even help mitigate the risk of future pandemics.

Genome sequences of the COVID-19 virus found in humans at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 were 95% identical to that of a bat coronavirus found in a common Southeast Asian horseshoe bat species called the intermediate horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus affinis) (Li et al. 2021). A project to gather data on three families of bats across nine European institutions - including the Natural History Museum - was initiated by the CETAF COVID-19 taskforce, and funded by SYNTHESYS + Virtual Access. Data from over 20,000 bats will be released from the nine institutions, providing a new resource for scientific research and a comprehensive view of the species distribution, ecology and behaviour of bats around the world over time.

The NHM London has now completed gathering data from over 8000 specimens for this project, from three families of bats: the Horseshoe bats (family Rhinolophidae) and their close relatives the Old World Leaf-nosed bats (family Hipposideridae) and Trident bats (family Rhinonycteridae).

Mitigating the risk of future pandemics

A greater understanding of species distribution and ecosystem change from specimen data can help researchers to link events such as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to specific environmental conditions. This could help to predict when a future viral spillover might occur. Furthermore, these data can be used to identify bat specimens that may contain viral DNA for further investigation, improving our understanding of the species that might carry viruses so we can anticipate and prevent the occurrence of future health crises.

Professor Jonathan Ball, from the Wolfson Centre for Emerging Virus Infections at Nottingham University says, ‘These data help us identify specimens for further investigation. Because of this we have been able to develop a new protocol for obtaining the best samples of viral genome from specimens, some of them over 100 years old. Next generation sequencing can be applied to these samples to provide unique insights into the array of viruses that were present in bat populations over the past hundred years. It is hoped that this will shed light on the evolution of viruses like Ebola and coronaviruses. This will become invaluable research that can be used to understand their emergence and help identify future pandemic threats.’

A better understanding of human health

Bats have several unique characteristics which scientists are studying to gain insights into bats and potentially human health. For example, having the ability to fly requires bats to have a very high metabolic rate and yet they can live for up to 40 years, whereas other animals with a high metabolic rate often live short lives because of the cellular damage that this can cause. The enhanced cellular mechanisms that bats have to repair damaged cells mean they have very good immune systems, which are of particular interest to scientists.

 Professor Emma Teeling, zoologist and geneticist from University College Dublin, Ireland says ‘Bats have incredible immune systems, very low rates of cancer, and have evolved novel ways to slow down ageing and deal with viruses, so there is huge potential to learn how we can improve human health through studying the bat genome and their immune systems. Digitisation projects like this give us a huge amount of data to work with, presenting huge opportunities for future research.’

 Open access data

 All data generated from the digitisation project will be freely available on the Museum’s Data Portal. As part of these digital records, the Museum has generated enhanced digitisation photography of 170 type specimens from the bat collection. Museum digitiser Phaedra Kokkini says ‘We have taken photos of their skulls, and skins as well as close-up photos of the nose-leaf of the bodies preserved in spirit. These photos will be useful as a global reference for species identification in future studies.’ The data from the Museum’s bat digitisation project, including the type specimen photographs are being uploaded to the Museum’s Data Portal. Find out more about how natural history museums can help fight future pandemics here.







A bat from the collection is examined by a Museum scientist © The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London

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