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Tassie Devils Are Evolving Resistance to Facial Tumours

Tasmanian devils are evolving genetic resistance to the deadly facial tumour disease, with researchers reporting that two regions in their genomes are changing in response to the transmissible cancer that has wiped out an estimated 80% of the population in only 20 years.

The research, published in Nature Communications, draws on a tissue archive established in 1999 by A/Prof Menna Jones of The University of Tasmania. From this archive, an international team compared the frequency of genes in specific regions of DNA prior to and after the emergence of the disease at three independent disease sites across Tasmania.

“We identified two small genomic regions in the DNA samples from all three of the recent collection sites that exhibited significant changes in response to the strong selection imposed by the disease,” Jones said. “Five of seven genes in the two regions they identified were related to cancer or immune function in other mammals, suggesting that Tasmanian devils are indeed evolving resistance to DFTD.”

The researchers are currently in the process of identifying the specific functionality of the genomic regions identified in the study. “We hope that in future, disease-free devils with apparently DFTD-resistant DNA can be bred to enhance the genetic diversity of insurance populations in case devil reintroductions are needed in future,” Jones said.