Genetic material that codes for the adaptation of bats and their “superpowers” – not only to fly but also the ability to fly, use sound to move without problems in complete darkness, carry potentially dangerous, deadly viruses and survive, as well as resist aging and cancer – was discovered today. Six reference-quality genomes finally reveal the evolution of adaptation in bats. The research is published in the journal Nature.

One aspect of the researchers’ work demonstrates evolution through the expansion and loss of genes in the APOBEC3 gene family. It is known to play an important role in immunity to viruses in other mammals. Scientists set out to find out how these genetic changes, found in bats but not in other mammals, can help prevent the worst outcomes of viral diseases in other mammals, including humans.

To create bat genomes, the team used the latest DRESDEN-concept Genome Center, a shared technology resource in Dresden, Germany, to sequence bat DNA. Researchers have also developed new methods for assembling these parts in the correct order and identifying the genes present. While previous work by scientists has identified genes that can influence the unique biology of bats, uncovering how gene duplications contributed to this unique biology has been complicated by incomplete genomes.

The team compared the bat’s genomes with 42 other mammals to determine where bats are in the mammalian tree of life. Using new phylogenetic methods and exhaustive molecular datasets, the scientists drew conclusions. They found that bats are most closely related to a group called Fereuungulata, which consists of carnivorous animals (which include dogs, cats, and seals, among other species), dinosaurs, whales, and ungulate mammals.

To identify genomic changes that contribute to the unique adaptations found in bats, scientists systematically searched for genetic differences between bats and other mammals, identifying regions of the genome that bats evolved differently, and the loss and gain of genes that can drive unique features of bats.

It was through a series of sophisticated statistical analyzes that scientists began to uncover the genetics of bats’ superpowers, including their apparent ability to carry and overcome RNA viruses, one of the researchers said.

Scientists have found evidence of past survival of viral infections and have shown that bat genomes contain a greater variety of viral residues than other species.

Ultimately, reference-quality bat genomes provide the resources needed to identify and validate the genomic basis of bat adaptation and stimulate new avenues of research that are directly related to human health and disease.