Bats have developed a pretty bad rap sheet in the last few years. First, pop culture painted these mammals as a form of the blood-sucking Dracula, and then they were villainised for allegedly triggering a pandemic. Indeed, these poor creatures can’t seem to catch a break! Aside from being adorable, bats have several other redeeming qualities like being the only mammals capable of flying and finding food even in complete darkness.
Of late, experts in genetics have uncovered a few startling facts about these Chiropterans, which could imply that they may hold the secret to healthy ageing. With the COVID-19 pandemic turning the spotlight on bats, their unique ability to stay alive against unmatched odds has also come under scrutiny.
Surprisingly long lifespan for its size
The relationship between the size of a mammal, its metabolism, and lifespan is relatively straightforward. The larger the mammal, the slower its metabolism is, and this means a longer lifespan. While we humans ourselves are an exception to this rule, these flying mammals also deviate from this trend.
Some bats are known to live for 40 years—that’s eight times longer than the lifespan of other animals their size! This unusually long lifespan of bats has always aroused the curiosity of scientists—it prompted them to ask the question, what was it that made these bats live longer?
The gene expression pattern in bats is very unique and has been associated with DNA repair, autophagy, immunity and tumour suppression, ensuring an extended health span for bats. Now, scientists are wondering if we could replicate a few such attributes on humans as well!
Telomere is the key
There’s a cap-like structure called the telomere present at the end of each chromosome—a microscopic threadlike part of the cell that carries part or all of the genetic material. This unique structure protects your chromosomes from damage. Every time your cells replicate, the chromosome loses just a little bit of the telomere. As time passes, this telomere gets very short, and either rides the wave of ageing or causes the cell to self-destruct. To put it succinctly, the shortening of your telomeres is why you age.
While this seems inevitable, studies conducted in the last few years revealed that the telomeres do not shorten in long-lived species of bats—like the Myotis genus. This means that these species can protect their DNA for an unusually long-time in their lifespan.
It’s almost like bats are ageing in reverse
It’s common knowledge that in humans, the body’s ability to heal and repair any damage decreases considerably as we age. But researchers studied the genome of young, middle-aged, and old bats and found that their ability to repair DNA and damage caused by age increased as they grew older.
Another quality that contributes to their longevity is their ability to control their immune responses. With an over-excited immune response, humans tend to succumb to infections like COVID-19 quicker. In COVID-19 patients with regulated immune responses, the risk of ending up on the ventilator is much lower, reveals research.
Similarly, a controlled immune response could be why bats are able to carry numerous deadly pathogens like the coronavirus without succumbing to them easily.
Humans and bats have many similar genes but with a tweak here and a nip there. So, if we could someday discover what factors elicit these controlled immune responses and telomere shortening avoidance in bats and replicate it in humans, it would be a massive leap towards the utopian dream of a healthy, long life!
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