Koala’s DNA blueprint sequenced

By Natsumi Penberthy 9 April 2013
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Australian scientists produce a draft of the koala genome, which they say will help to conserve the iconic native.

A CONSORTIUM OF Australian scientists on Tuesday announced the initial sequencing of the genetic blueprint of the koala.

This native icon has become one of only a handful of Aussie species that have been sequenced, including the Tasmanian devil, wallaby, platypus, and a gum tree.

The research opens up the field to develop blood tests and vaccines for endangered populations of koalas, say the researchers.

“We have made significant advancements towards characterising close to all of the koala genes,” says Dr Rebecca Johnson, of the Australian Museum in Sydney. “The genome, however, is a much bigger picture because it’s all of the genes, and all the pieces of the genome between those genes.”

Mapping the koala genome

Because of this, the group of scientists – led by researchers from the Australian Museum and Queensland University of Technology (QUT) – have now put out a call for financial support and academic input to continue the sequencing effort under the Koala Genome Consortium.

They tentatively put a time-frame of 3-4 years to completely map the genome, if the funding and support can be found. The DNA sequence data will then enter the public domain to help researchers look at the population structure, biodiversity and immune systems of these iconic marsupials.

The scientists say they are one of the first teams in the country to map a mammalian genome sequence. While the genome sequencing of animals is typically done in their countries of origin, Rebecca says much of the work on Australian species so far has been carried out in the USA, or other parts of the world.

Genome insights may cure koala diseases

The practical applications of the complete DNA dataset are far reaching, says Professor Chris Johnson, an ecologist at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. One important use, he says, will be to understand the genetic diversity within and across the many fragmented populations of koala.

Diseases can also be better tackled, such as Chlamydia, which is widespread in koalas and causes infertility and blindness.

Information about the koala immune system from the genetic work has already helped to produce a vaccine for Chlamydia, which will go into field testing as early as next week says Professor Peter Timms, a researcher with the genome consortium at QUT in Brisbane.

Peter says the data is also helping researchers understand why Victorian populations remain virtually unaffected by the disease.

Koala retrovirus is another illness that is hitting populations hard. Something about the koala version of the virus seems to cause lymphomas, a cancer of the blood, says Peter, adding that “we’ve already got some snippets of data to see how that’s happening.”

“Suddenly the genome sequence can tell us things – overnight almost – that people haven’t been able to tell for the past 100 years,” he says.