A devil at the Tasmanian Devil Breeding Centre in Sydney. (Credit: Greg Wood/AFP)

Tasmanian devil genome offers cancer clues

  • BY AAP with Jenna Hanson |
  • February 20, 2012

Understanding the facial tumour disease decimating devil populations could provide insight into human cancers, say experts.

THE TASMANIAN DEVIL genome has been mapped for the first time, a breakthrough that could lead to a better understanding of both the devastating facial cancer decimating wild populations and related human cancers.

The international team, led by Dr Janine Deakin from the Australian National University, compared the genome of healthy Tasmanian devils to those devils suffering from cancerous facial tumours. The research, published in the latest edition of the journal PLoS Genetics, found key fragments of the chromosomes were mixed up between the two samples.

This transmissible facial tumour disease has decimated the devil population since it was first discovered in 1996. Many devils die of the disease and others perish because their faces become deformed, interfering with their ability to eat.


Tasmanian devil

A healthy Tassie devil sniffing the air. (Credit: University of Sydney/AAP)

Deadly facial tumour disease

Janine says the devil tumour has changed very little over the last 16 years.

"That's really unusual for cancers, because usually for human cancers evolution is rapid and the tumour will be completely different between the original tumour and its metastases," she says. "In this work we confirmed that the devil tumour is genetically very stable."

If a solution is not found to this devastating disease, scientists believe that wild populations of Tasmanian devils could be wiped out within 25 years. In order to help prevent this, numerous strategies have been trialled, including culling diseased animals and setting up captive breeding programs like the Devil's Ark refuge at Barrington Tops.

"This study greatly increases our knowledge of the geographic origin, and the clonal evolution of this unusual contagious cancer that is threatening Tasmanian devils with extinction," says mammalian conservationist Dr Menna Jones from the University of Tasmania.

"[It] is directly relevant to developing conservation management strategies to halt [this] decline and recover devils in the wild in Tasmania."

Tasmanian devil offers clues to human cancers?

"Saving devils in the wild is best achieved by understanding and enhancing the natural evolutionary interaction between the devil and it's cancer through translocating either resistant or tolerant devils or less virulent tumours [and this] work is an important step in this knowledge," she says.

Janine hopes the research will help to increase understanding of cancers in devils as well as humans.

"In humans, you are usually working with a rapidly evolving cancer and it's hard to identify the important things because it's all happening so fast," she says. "The devil is going to be a good model for looking at some human cancers because it is so stable - with everything happening slower we have a better chance of finding those things out."


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