Heat sensors help bats home in on blood sources

August 4th, 2011 - 1:33 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Aug 4 (IANS) A sensitive, heat-detecting molecule covering nerve endings on their noses is the reason how vampire bats know which part of the victim’s skin to home on in to feed on a rich source of blood.

By investigating wild vampire bats in South America, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco and Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas in Caracas, Venezuela, have discovered their secret.

It is a sensitive, heat-detecting molecule covering nerve endings on their noses called TRPV1. A number of pharmaceutical companies are working on new pain killers that target molecules like TRPV1, the journal Nature reports.

“Vampire bats feed on blood, and it’s useful for them to have an infrared detector to be able to find the circulation,” said David Julius, professor of molecular biology and medicine at University of California who led the research.

Similar TRPV1 molecules can be found on pain-sensing nerve fibres in human tongue, skin or eyes. They allow people to detect the chemical capsaicin in chilli peppers and experience the burning tinge of spicy food, according to a university statement.

The discovery highlights how small changes to genes of a species can contribute to major evolutionary adaptations over time - in this case, allowing the vampire bat to detect infrared heat from their prey, helping them efficiently find and feed on blood.

“Pain is necessary as a warning system to let us know when we are in danger of injury but, at the same time, pain can outlive its usefulness…when it fails to resolve and becomes chronic and debilitating,” Julius said.

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