A Research Blog

In their second post, Drs Justin Ng and Chionh Yok Teng from the Bat Pack tell us more setting up the first bat colony for research in Singapore.

Since Prof Wang Linfa’s establishment of the bat research group, nick named Bat Pack, here at Duke-NUS’ Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme (EID) in 2013, he has always envisaged establishing a captive bat colony for Singapore as a means to determine and identify key immunological factors crucial for their unique ability to withstand infection by various pathogens. Bats are known to carry a host of viruses including Ebola virus, SARS virus and Nipah virus. When bats are infected by these deadly viruses, unlike humans and other animals, they remain clinically asymptomatic.

Science coverPhoto credit:Martin Asser Hansen/www.maasha.dk

In 2013, an international team led by Prof Wang sequenced the genomes of two bats including the Australian black flying fox (Pteropus alecto). This was published in Science on 25 January 2013 and featured on its cover. Numerous reagents and research tools (such as cell lines) have already been established since. Naturally, the black flying fox became our first choice to establish our captive, breeding bat colony here in Singapore. However, after multiple rounds of discussions and negotiations with relevant authorities here in Singapore, too many hurdles are needed to be traversed for the successful importation of live black flying foxes into Singapore, making this option unfeasible. We quickly switched gears and explored the option of establishing our bat colony using a local bat species instead.

There were two local bat species identified as our potential candidates: the Dog-faced bat (Cynopterus brachyotis) and the Cave Nectar bat (Eonycteris spelaea). Both bats are commonly spotted in the night skies of Singapore. After in-depth discussion and consultation with the Singapore Zoological Gardens, National Parks Board, as well as Dr Ian Mendenhall’s group in EID, we concluded that cave nectar bats would be our most ideal choice due to their robust population numbers in the wild and ease of access to their roosting sites for our trapping expeditions.

Cave nectar bats are nectar-feeding bats and one of the main pollinators for durian trees in the region. Being the first nectar-feeding bat colony in this part of the world, we had to research and formulate our own recipe of liquid diets as feed for them. We first set up a trial colony of five bats to test out our facility, husbandry practices, cage designs and feed formulation at the SingHealth Experimental Medicine Centre (SMEC) large animal facility. After months of trial and optimisation and observing which formulation our trial bats likes and grew well in, we believe our current diet is optimal for the health and well-being of our captive bats. The cages have also gone through multiple design iterations to ensure sufficient room for the bats to live and fly in.

After months of tweaking and improvement, we were finally confident of our setup. In April 2016, we expanded our trial colony of five bats into a founding colony of 20 bats. All our incoming bats were quarantined and screened for viruses and other pathogens to ensure that they are “clean“. We closely monitor the colony for their activity and alertness levels, amount of feed consumed, in addition to quarterly weigh-ins and health checks. With our first “clean” population established, we hope to breed them in captivity and subsequently establish a “naïve” population of bats that have not been exposed to diseases in the wild. This would allow us to establish a true baseline and tease out their immunological defence against pathogens during infection studies.

Bat colony

To date, our founding colony is doing well and we hope that they will start producing some babies soon. We are currently looking into designing bat cages for future in vivo infection studies in the ABSL3 facility. We will keep you posted!

 

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