Regulatory DNA helps fruit bats to control their blood sugar and ensure their sugar-rich diet doesn’t do them any harm, scientists have said.

Despite gorging on sugary fruit, fruit bats suffer no ill effects, leading scientists to look more closely at how their bodies have adapted to cope with such a high intake of sugar, with hopes it could inform the development of diabetes treatment.

Co-senior author Dr Nadav Ahituv, director of the University of California – San Francisco Institute for Human Genetics, said: “With diabetes, the human body can’t produce or detect insulin, leading to problems controlling blood sugar.

“But fruit bats have a genetic system that controls blood sugar without fail. We’d like to learn from that system to make better insulin- or sugar-sensing therapies for people.”

Co-first author Dr Wei Gordon, assistant professor of biology at Menlo College, said: “We need to understand high-sugar metabolism like this to make progress helping the one in three Americans who are prediabetic.”

The research concentrated on how the bat pancreas and kidneys have evolved to allow the fruit bat to consume up to twice their body weight in fruit every day.

In comparison to an insect-eating bat’s pancreas, the fruit bat’s pancreas had more insulin-producing cells.

Scientists also identified genetic changes that have taken place to help fruit bats process high quantities of sugar.

They used new single-cell technology to examine how cells regulate gene expression (which genes were on or off) to manage diet.

Researchers discovered regulatory DNA in the cells of the fruit bat had evolved to switch the appropriate genes for fruit metabolism on or off.

Dr Gordon said: “The DNA around genes used to be considered ‘junk’, but our data shows that this regulatory DNA likely helps fruit bats react to sudden increases or decreases in blood sugar.”

The research team say that while elements of the fruit bat’s biology are similar to those in humans with diabetes, the bat has evolved to be able to process high levels of sugar without any consequences.

Dr Gordon said: “It’s remarkable to step back from model organisms, like the laboratory mouse, and discover possible solutions for human health crises out in nature. Bats have figured it out, and it’s all in their DNA, the result of natural selection.”

Dr Ahituv added: “For me, bats are like superheroes, each one with an amazing superpower, whether it is echolocation, flying, blood sucking without coagulation, or eating fruit and not getting diabetes. This kind of work is just the beginning.”

Read the study in Nature Communications.

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