In the quest to conquer cancer, scientists have turned to the natural world for effective solutions. In this case, the details may be in the Devil. An international team of researchers has learned that two specific sections of the Tasmanian Devil genome are changing rapidly in response to the spread of devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). The genetic data compiled by the researchers will be used to help protect the Tasmanian Devil from extinction while providing insight into treatment for humans.

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Tasmanian Devil, Tasmania, marsupial

“Our study suggests hope for the survival of the Tasmanian devil in the face of this devastating disease,” said researcher Andrew Storfer. “Ultimately, it may also help direct future research addressing important questions about the evolution of cancer transmissibility and what causes remission and reoccurrence in cancer and other diseases.”

Tasmanian Devil, Tasmania, marsupial

The Tasmanian Devil is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world and is found in the wild only on the Australian island state of Tasmania. It is named for its aggressive behavior against outsiders and fellow Devils. Through this peer-to-peer violence, DFTD may be spread. One of only three types of transmissible cancer, DFTD has wiped out nearly eighty percent of the Tasmanian Devil population in the twenty years since it was discovered. As Dr. Ian Malcolm once so eloquently put it, life finds a way and some Devils have evolved to endure against this threat.

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The researchers were inspired to explore genetic explanations when some individuals in disease-ravaged populations endured despite scientific models predicting their demise. “If a disease comes in and knocks out 90 percent of the individuals, you might predict the 10 percent who survive are somehow genetically different,” said study co-author Paul Hohenlohe. “What we were looking for were the parts of the genome that show that difference.” The team discovered that two specific genomic regions, which contained genes that are connected to the immune system  and cancer, demonstrated significant changes in the surviving populations. In addition to identifying the specific function for these genes, the researchers hope to use this information to increase genetic diversity and resilience within the Tasmanian Devil population.


Images via Chen Wu/Flickr and Greg Schechter/Flickr