Beautiful bat biology unlocks clues about healthy ageing

Research Lives: Prof Emma Teeling, UCD school of biology and environmental science

‘Bats use their senses in intriguing ways,’ says  Emma Teeling. ‘They echolocate and contrary to popular belief they are far from blind; in fact, some have really good vision’.

‘Bats use their senses in intriguing ways,’ says Emma Teeling. ‘They echolocate and contrary to popular belief they are far from blind; in fact, some have really good vision’.

 

Emma, you work on bats, creatures that many people would run from. Why do you like them?

“I think people would like bats a lot more if they saw them up close and knew more about their biology. Some look like little mice, others like little foxes or dogs, and when I see them interacting with each other and carrying their young, I am struck by how beautiful they are in their own way. Their biology is beautiful too.

In what way is their biology beautiful?

Well, for one thing, they are mammals that fly. That is pretty amazing. They also use their senses in intriguing ways. They echolocate and contrary to popular belief they are far from blind; in fact, some have really good vision.

They are unusual too in that they are small animals that use a lot of energy for flight, so you would not expect them to have long lifespans; but they can live for decades and they seem to avoid getting sick from cancer and from viruses that make other animals sick.

What have you been researching?

All of the above! I am really interested in bat genetics and what that can tell us about how bats evolved these various traits, and how they age.

How do you look at that?

You really have to go and find the bats and get samples. One of the long-standing places we have gone to get samples are in churches in Brittany in France. We take blood samples and small tissue samples from bat wings, and we sample the same bats across the years as they age.

Is that difficult?

Yes! From organising the logistics of the field trip to catching the bats – they are smart, when they see the UCD biologists coming their way, they know to escape – and then taking these tiny volumes of blood and keeping them stored the right way until we can get them back to the lab.

Each time we go, I find myself reminded why people don’t do a lot of this kind of fieldwork. But the students and the local bat conservation groups we work with are great, so it turns out fine. Usually.

What have you been finding?

We just published a big study in Nature Ecology and Evolution that brings together lots of our gene activity research. We saw that as the bats age, they turn up the volume on their DNA repair genes and the genes involved in removing damaged protein.

They also have increased activity of anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer pathways and we can see how they are driving that at a molecular level. It’s complex, which is what you would expect because ageing is not just one thing and there is no quick fix.

What’s the most challenging element of being a researcher?

I think it’s the constant need to look for funding. I have been very fortunate to be funded by Science Foundation Ireland, Wellcome Trust, the Irish Research Council and the European Research Council, and I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about and writing grant applications.

How do you take a break?

Myself and Peter [Gallagher, head of astronomy and astrophysics at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies] are always busy with the kids and work, but we take good long family holidays where we turn off the email and try and relax.”