Saving the Tassie devils from extinction

University of Canberra researcher and ARC Future Fellow Dr Janine Deakin is investigating the deadly facial tumour disease that is currently devastating the Tasmanian devil population.

Dr Deakin, a comparative genomics specialist, is conducting her research by comparing the normal devil genome to that of the tumour. Her investigation reveals how the tumour was initially

formed and how it evolves as it spreads throughout the population.

“This disease is unusual in that it is a contagious cancer,” Dr Deakin explains.

“It appears that the tumour itself is the infectious agent, being spread by healthy devils biting into the tumours of infected devils. Biting each other around the face is a social behavior the devils display during mating and communal feeding.”

“The tumour originated in an animal over 17 years ago, has outlived its original host and has since passed through thousands of devils,” the researcher says.

Dr Deakin and her colleagues have discovered that the facial tumour initially developed in a female devil. “There was no Y chromosome genetic material found in the tumour and most of the X chromosome genes were found in two copies, as we would expect for a female.”

The research data also provides some insight into how the tumour was initially formed. “It appears that two chromosomes were shattered and rejoined in a completely different order.”

By continuing to observe how the tumour genome is evolving, Dr Deakin will be able to determine if the tumour is changing to overcome resistance it meets within the devil population.

“This is a situation we hope is not happening,” she says. More positively, she adds that, “the tumour may be evolving to become less virulent to Tasmanian devils, allowing them to ultimately survive and overcome a tumour infection.”

Her work could prove to be great news for the devils’ population and a significant turning point in ensuring their survival in the future.