Is there hope yet for the beleaguered Tasmanian devil in its fight against the deadly condition known as devil facial tumor disease (DFTD)?
Researchers from Washington State University (WSU) say they have identified a genetic resistance to DFTD evolving in some populations of the animal.
Tasmanian devils, the well known marsupials that live exclusively on the island of Tasmania off southern Australia, have been decimated in recent years by DFTD, a transmissible cancer that is almost always fatal and has taken out an estimated 80% of the devils.
The brutal condition, which spreads among devils through bites or food sharing, causes cancers to form in the animal's mouth, making it hard to eat and eventually bringing about death by starvation.
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Now, though, a WSU team has found two devil genome regions that suggest there may be a way forward for the species, one that does not include extinction.
The scientists took note of devil populations that persisted in areas that had long since been overrun by DFTD and investigated whether there might be a genetic reason the animals had not contracted it.
By comparing devil DNA samples taken before and after the emergence of DFTD, the scientists found two genome regions that had changed significantly following the spread of the disease.
Several genes in those regions, the team observed, are associated with cancer or immune system function in other mammals, which told them the surviving devils may indeed be evolving a resistance to the lethal condition.
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The scientists are now looking more closely at the genome regions, with the ultimate goal of breeding DFTD-resistant devils.
"Our study suggests hope for the survival of the Tasmanian devil in the face of this devastating disease," said Andrew Storfer, WSU biology professor, in a statement. "Ultimately," he added, "it may also help direct future research addressing important questions about the evolution of cancer transmissibility and what causes remission and re-occurrence in cancer and other diseases."
Complete findings of the study have been published in the journal Nature Communications.
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