Magazine article Science News

Tasmanian Devil Diversity Detailed: First Genetic Blueprints Don't Explain Cancer Vulnerability

Magazine article Science News

Tasmanian Devil Diversity Detailed: First Genetic Blueprints Don't Explain Cancer Vulnerability

Article excerpt

Two new complete sets of Tasmanian devil genetic blueprints hold some good news and bad news for the species. The bad news is that the marsupial's genetic diversity is among the lowest known for any species. The good news is that the devil's low diversity has a long history and may not be reason for as much concern as once thought.

This low genetic diversity "does not mean the species is doomed," says genomicist Stephan Schuster of Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "If you maintain the entire diversity this can still be a viable species."

A team of researchers deciphered the genetic blueprints of two Tasmanian devils named Cedric and Spirit that hail from opposite ends of Tasmania, the team reports online June 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The two devils differ in their response to the infectious cancer that has decimated wild devil populations.

Cedric was one of the few devils whose immune system could fight off the infectious cancer, which started in a single long-dead devil and has since swept over more than half the island. Cedric survived two attempts to infect him with the facial tumor as part of efforts to better understand the disease, but finally succumbed to a third strain. Spirit was already infected with five tumors and was near death when she was captured. Researchers hope that comparing the two animals' genomes, consisting of all the DNA contained in the cell nucleus, will show why Cedric was partially immune to the fatal cancer while Spirit and so many others are not.

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The initial analysis of the two genomes doesn't provide a clear answer, but scientists suspect that most devils have variants in certain genes that make them susceptible to the tumors.

"The really exciting discoveries are yet to come," says Katherine Belov, a geneticist at the University of Sydney who was not involved in the study. "We are very excited to be able to jump in and start mining this genome."

The study reveals more details about the genetic diversity of current Tasmanian devil populations. While researchers have long known that the devils have low levels of genetic diversity, the new work shows that overall devil diversity is about 20 percent of that in humans. …

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