In the fall of 2010, 25-year-old Chris Cornelison had just started a Ph.D. program at Georgia State University. He was working in a lab, trying to figure out what sort of research to pursue. The lab, he said, tended towards the productively chaotic: wires, everywhere, refrigerators stuffed with fungal samples, and fruit. Lots of fruit.
That's because another group was using the lab to test ways to delay ripening. Cornelison recalls it was something of a running joke to speculate over which graduate student would eat which moldy banana (which, he was quick to clarify, they would never actually do).
But the fruit made him think. Cornelison was familiar with White-Nose Syndrome, which has killed millions of bats since it was first detected in 2006 in a cave in upstate New York. The fungus attacks the animals as they hibernate, covering their wings and muzzles in a fuzzy white mold. It's unusual for a fungus to attack a mammal like that, and he had had also seen pictures of caves where the disease had struck, littered with the bodies of dead bats.
"It sticks with you," he said of the images.
The other lab team had exposed some of the bananas to a bacteria called Rhodococcus rhodochrous. The results were startling: The treated bananas were pristine. The others were visibly decayed, and covered in a white fuzzy mold similar to the type found on stricken bats.
"That's when the wheels started turning," Cornelison said. "If Rhodococcus rhodochrous can be used to inhibit mold growth on a banana, perhaps it can also prevent mold growth on a bat."
He began testing his theory in the lab, with very compelling results.
Now he and his team have partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and Bat Conservation International to put the bacteria in bat habitats. So far, the exposure appears to kill developing spores, slowing the disease substantially.
Cornelison credits his inspiration to the freedom of thought and lack of fear that comes with still being a student.
"You really just get to focus on 'what if?'," he said. "That's a very powerful position to be in, and a very uninhibited position."
Hypothesis is written and produced by Alec Hamilton and edited by Matthew Schuerman. Sound design and engineering by Liora Noam-Kravitz. Original music by Josh Burnett.
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