Are bats key to unlocking the secrets of human ageing?

10 Jul 2024

Prof Emma Teeling. Image: Luis Aviles

Prof Emma Teeling discusses her study of bats, their healthspan and resistance to disease, and how this might impact the human ageing process.

Prof Emma Teeling, the full professor of zoology at University College Dublin (UCD), had eclectic interests as a child. She was enthralled by biology and physics, as well as the activities of non-human animals, which she would watch for hours on end – except spiders, as they scared her and still do to this day. 

“Science was never hard work or a chore to study, it was fascinating,” she told As the founder and director of the Centre for Irish Bat Research and a founding director of BAT1K, an international consortium of scientists, technologists and bat lovers, Teeling believes firmly in the power of integrating a diverse range of researchers and scientific fields to address challenges.

“For the past 12 years I have pioneered the study of wild bats as new models of extended mammalian healthspan, uncovering their unique adaptations and collaborating with researchers around the globe,” said Teeling. 


The goal of Teeling’s work is to achieve breakthroughs in the understanding of the molecular basis of bats’ extended healthspan, their impressive resistance to disease and how this can be applied to human health and disease outcome. 

“Among mammals, bats exhibit an exceptional longevity with little signs of age-related diseases. Also, viral infections in bats are mostly asymptomatic due to unique immune system adaptations,” she said. 

Until recently, this area of research was not without its challenges, as Teeling notes that despite being exemplary models for the study of healthspan extension and disease resiliency, “logistically it is difficult to study bats in an ageing context, as most are only found in the wild, are protected, are too small for non-lethal sampling and are not easily maintained in captivity”.

According to Teeling, this significantly limited ageing studies in bats. However, across the last 12 years, she and her colleagues have managed to overcome this issue to position wild bats as new model study systems of extended healthspan. 

“We have developed the field, laboratory and state-of-the-art genomic methodologies and resources required to ascertain the molecular age-related changes that occur in wild bats using non-lethal samples. We have suggested multiple, independent life-extension adaptations evolved in bats, that are providing a unique insight into how we can extend and manipulate human healthspan,” she said.  

New discoveries

The results of Teeling’s work have shown that the longest-lived bats (the Myotis genus, commonly known as mouse-eared bats) exhibit unique pro-longevity characteristics, without the expected levels of age-related damage or inflammation.

“Rather, they maintain telomere length, mitochondrial integrity, microbiome diversity and immune balance with age. This is coupled with age-increasing levels of DNA repair, autophagy and tumour suppression.”

This is in stark contrast to bats with shorter lifespans, such as the Molossus molossus genus, which exhibit higher levels of anti-longevity gene expression. “DNA methylation studies comparing shorter- versus longer-lived bats implicate innate immunity and cancer suppression as major drives of bat longevity,” she said.

These results have led to the hypothesis that ‘damage limitation and immune balance’ underlie bats’ extended healthspans and are the foundation for future validation studies to show that the regulators discovered do indeed modulate ageing rate and disease progression.”

Future advancements 

For Teeling, the discoveries around DNA repair and immune balance, which are both considered major drivers of human ageing, will form the basis for fresh insights and could provide “new avenues to potentially manipulate these processes in humans”. 

Despite the advancements, there will always be the need for further research, as Teeling noted, “we need to spend more time and energy exploring some of the basic biology of ageing to get even deeper insights, but with new advancements in the field and in biotechnologies this will be accelerated”.

Looking to the future, she anticipates the wider integration of different scientific fields to uniquely combine the data and studies that will answer her questions. “I see a bright future as we are now poised to do this,” she said. 

When asked what excites her most about the industry, Teeling described working in STEM as a “pure addiction of the thrill of discovery”, noting the impact of being able to to answer the questions that most intrigue you, to actually push the boundaries of human knowledge and “to find solutions to make our world a better place”. 

Ultimately, she advised like-minded people to never give up and keep their vision alive. “Keep the passion for the research in spite of all of the difficulties and endless battles.”

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Laura Varley is the Careers reporter for Silicon Republic