Scientists Unveil Genetic Weapon Against Tasmanian Devil Cancer

Highly susceptible to Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), which is almost always fatal to their species, Tasmanian devils have faced a perilous battle for survival.

In a race against time to save one of Australia’s iconic marsupials, Tasmanian devils, scientists have delved deep into the genomic interactions between these creatures and a devastating infectious cancer that has decimated their population over the past three decades.

Highly susceptible to Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), which is almost always fatal to their species, Tasmanian devils have faced a perilous battle for survival. However, new research sheds light on the intricate genetic dance between these marsupials and the lethal disease.

Led by USF Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology Mark Margres and PhD student Dylan Gallinson, a groundbreaking study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) unveils the intergenomic signatures of coevolution between Tasmanian devils and the infectious cancer plaguing them.

“A big question in biology is the genetic basis for disease. The classic way to determine this is through genome studies and regression analysis that matches genes with disease risk,” explained Margres. “Previously there hadn’t been a technique to study the interactions between both genomes.”

Utilizing a recently developed joint genome-wide association study, Margres and Gallinson meticulously examined 960 genomes and 15 years of data on captured devils to unravel the co-evolutionary trajectory between the devils and the cancer ravaging their population.

“Our collaborators in Tasmania have been monitoring the spread of the disease and collecting tissue samples,” Gallinson elaborated. “We sequenced the DNA of both the tumors and the devils to find the mutation that contributes to the manifestation of the disease.”

The findings of their research hold significant implications for both epidemiological models tracking infectious diseases and devil management strategies aimed at preserving this endangered species.

With the genomic interactions between Tasmanian devils and DFTD better understood, researchers and conservationists are equipped with valuable insights to inform targeted intervention strategies. By identifying specific mutations driving susceptibility to the disease, avenues for potential therapeutic interventions or genetic rescue efforts may emerge.

Moreover, the study underscores the importance of ongoing surveillance and monitoring efforts to track the spread and evolution of infectious diseases in wildlife populations. By staying vigilant and proactive, researchers can adapt management strategies in real-time to mitigate the impact of diseases like DFTD on vulnerable species.

Despite the grim threat posed by Devil Facial Tumor Disease, this research offers a glimmer of hope for the survival of Tasmanian devils. Armed with knowledge gleaned from the complex interplay between genetics and disease, conservation efforts can be refined and targeted to safeguard the future of these iconic marsupials for generations to come.