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article imageTasmanian devil genome guides preservation project

By Elizabeth Cunningham Perkins     Jun 29, 2011 in Science
Scientists are trying a new species-preservation strategy, centered around whole-genome analyses of two Tasmanian devils, one healthy and one dead from Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), a contagious cancer now threatening to wipe out the marsupials.
The solitary, nocturnal, coarse-furred Tasmanian devil, named for the maniacal rages it flies into when encroached upon, is the planet's largest carnivorous marsupial, and may grow to a length of 30 inches and weigh in at 26 pounds, according to National Geographic. Like the Looney Tunes cartoon character named for it, the Tasmanian devil appears to be a fierce and formidable little beast.
But the species is in severe danger today, because of the rapid spread of DFTD, an unusual, virulent cancer that spreads from animal to animal through physical contact, much like a virus would, and causes death from starvation or suffocation within months when tumors cover the animals' mouths and snouts, according to the team of scientists from Penn State and other institutions who began the Tasmanian Devil Genome Project.
According to the project website and a paper about the research, published June 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:
The researchers theorize the Tasmanian devil population may be unable to mount an immune defense against DFTD because it now lacks the necessary genetic diversity.
Sequencing and comparing diseased and healthy Tasmanian devil genomes will guide the project in identifying and isolating a genetically diverse enough sampling of healthy animals to repopulate the natural environment after the disease runs its course in the wild and dies out.
Because the two animals lived on opposite ends of their natural habitat, the northwest and southeast extremes of the island, studying their genomes together will allow the scientists to approximate the species' broadest genetic diversity and compare it to the genetic characteristics of the tumor.
Once the researchers identify traits that could defeat DFTD and lead to immunity, they will select the animals most likely to survive and restore healthy genetic diversity, and keep them in "protective custody" until it is safe to release them, hopefully to repopulate their island home anew.
According to the Unique Australian Animals website:
Most Tasmanian devils are black with white markings on or around their necks. The stout, terrier-sized mammals are also recognized by their extra-large heads, pointy ears, wide jaws and sharp teeth.
Today the Tasmanian devil is found only on the island-state of Tasmania, Australia, usually hiding out in eucalyptus forests and coastal scrub environments, but sometimes scavenging around the outskirts of towns.
These usually non-aggressive animals prefer meals of carrion -- meat cannot turn too rotten for them to guard ferociously. They will also kill small reptiles and mammals, and even their own kind occasionally.
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