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Bats. You can imagine them sticking out their creepy tongues out at us humans, saying, “Nah, nah, nah, nah.”

Not only are they the only mammals that can fly, but bats also show off with their immunity to viruses and other diseases. What gives?

Well, according to a recent study in Science, these two abilities—flight and immunity—might be related in the winged animals.

A group of international researchers sequenced the entire genomes of two species of bats—the fruit bat Pteropus alecto and the insectivore Myotis davidii. These two species are from the two distinct sub-orders of bats—P. alecto is a megabat and M. davidii, a microbat. By comparing and contrasting the two species’ genomes and those of other mammals (human, rhesus macaque, mouse, rat, dog, cat, cow, and horse), the scientists could refine bats’ place in the tree of life as well as determine the evolution of some of their bat-traits.

Study co-author Chris Cowled, of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, describes how remarkable these traits are. “Bats are a natural reservoir for several lethal viruses, such as Ebola and SARS, but they often don't succumb to disease from these viruses. They also live a long time compared to animals similar in size.”

It turns out the trick for this trait is flight. Flying is a very energy intensive activity that also produces toxic by-products, and bats have developed some novel genes to deal with the toxins. Some of these genes are implicated in the development of cancer or the detection and repair of damaged DNA.

“What we found intriguing was that some of these genes also have secondary roles in the immune system,” says Cowled. “We’re proposing that the evolution of flight led to a sort of spill over effect, influencing not only the immune system, but also things like aging and cancer.

“A deeper understanding of these evolutionary adaptations in bats may lead to better treatments for human diseases, and may eventually enable us to predict or perhaps even prevent outbreaks of emerging bat viruses,” says Cowled.

Sounds bat-tastic.

Image: James Niland/Wikipedia

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