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article imageGenetic mutation may save Tasmanian devil from extinction

By Igor I. Solar     Mar 10, 2010 in Environment
A population of Tasmanian devils living in northwestern Tasmania has shown to be immune to a severe facial cancer disease that has decimated the species.
Scientists from Australia´s Sydney and Tasmania Universities have been conducting research since 1996 on the deadly Devils Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) affecting the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). The contagious cancerous disease which develops from injuries caused by the animals biting each other’s face while fighting or mating, has reduced the population of this wild carnivorous marsupial to less than 30% of its original numbers. The problem prompted Australian authorities in May 2009 to include Sarcophilus harrisii in the list of endangered species. It has been estimated that the animal may become extinct possibly within the next ten years.
The recent discovery and genetic study of a northwestern population showing immunity to the disease has showed that they are genetically different from their eastern con-specifics. Dr. Katherine Belov of the Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Sydney, is heading the research aimed to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction. Initial efforts focused on the removal of sick individuals from the population and the development of a Captive Breeding Program of healthy animals at zoos and protected parks. However, by using techniques of population identification by genetic sequencing, Dr. Belov and her all-women research team have been working in the hope of finding new genetic types showing resistance to DFTD which can be interbred to create greater genetic diversity and protect the animals by spreading in the population the genes that provide immunity to the disease.
The Tasmanian devil is the only extant member of Sarcophilus, and one of the last species of carnivorous marsupials left in the world after the extinction of the thilacine, a.k.a. Tasmanian wolf or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) who used to inhabit areas of Tasmania, Australia and New Guinea and became extinct in 1936.
Tasmanian devils look like a small stocky dog. They have a black fur with a narrow white band across the chest. They produce a very pungent odor, similar to that of the skunk, when stressed. They are very loud and extremely ferocious when feeding or mating. Tasmanian devils became well known among children because of Taz, an animated Looney Tunes cartoon of a ravenous, quick and crazed behaved creature with little resemblance to the original marsupial animal.
Additional information on the research program at:
More about Tasmania, Sarcophilus, Dftd
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