BAT boffins at Scotland’s oldest university have helped crack genetic secrets behind the mammals’ “rare and wonderful superpowers”.

Bats are known for unique adaptations including the “superpower” abilities to use sound to fly effortlessly in complete darkness, to tolerate and survive deadly diseases and to resist ageing and cancer.

Dr Sonja Vernes, recently appointed UKRI Fellow at the University of St Andrews, co-founded a global team, Bat1K, to sequence the genomes of all 1,421 living bat species in order to begin to uncover the creatures’ unique traits for the first time.

The team has now generated and analysed six highly accurate bat genomes that are 10 times more complete than any bat genome published to date.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, will help shed light on bats’ abilities, which could eventually be “harnessed to alleviate human ageing and disease”.

Senior author Dr Vernes, said: “These are the first reference-quality genomes for bats. Having such complete and well annotated genomes allowed us unprecedented insight into the genetic and evolutionary abilities seen in bats.”

Professor Emma Teeling of University College Dublin, co-founding director of Bat1K, added: “Given these exquisite bat genomes, we can now better understand how bats tolerate viruses, slow down ageing, and have evolved flight and echolocation.

“These genomes are the tools needed to identify the genetic solutions evolved in bats that ultimately could be harnessed to alleviate human ageing and disease.”

To generate the bat genomes, the team used new technologies to sequence the bats’ DNA and developed new methods to assemble these pieces into the correct order and to identify the genes present.

The team compared these bat genomes against 42 other mammals to locate bats within the mammalian tree of life. They found the strongest support for bats being most closely related to the group Ferreuungulata that consists of carnivores (which includes dogs, cats and seals, among other species), pangolins, whales and ungulates (hooved mammals).

The team then systematically searched for gene differences between bats and other mammals, identifying regions of the genome that have evolved differently in bats and the loss and gain of genes that may drive bats’ unique traits.

Genome scans revealed changes in hearing genes that may contribute to echolocation, which bats use to hunt and navigate in complete darkness.

The team also found evidence that bats’ ability to tolerate viruses is reflected in their genomes.

The findings mark only the beginning of the team’s work. The remaining 1400-plus living bat species exhibit an incredible diversity in ecology, longevity, sensory perception and immunology, and numerous questions still remain regarding the genomic basis of these spectacular features.

Bat1K aims to answer these questions as more and more bat genomes are sequenced, further uncovering the genetic basis of the animals’ “superpowers”.

Senior author Professor Eugene Myers, Director of Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, and the Center for Systems Biology, Dresden, Germany, said: “These bat genomes provide a superb foundation for experimentation and evolutionary studies of bats’ fascinating abilities and physiological properties.”

In April, it was announced Dr Vernes is to lead a £1.5m study at the University of St Andrews on the way bats communicate with each other.

It is hoped that by examining their vocalisations and comparing them with other mammals such as seals and dolphins, the study will shed new light on the evolution of human language.