The mission to save the Tasmanian devil from a deadly facial tumour disease has been given a boost, with scientists successfully developing a map of the genetic make-up of a healthy devil.
The facial tumour disease has been recorded in 60% of Tasmania's wild devils, which are now an endangered species.
Lead researcher Dr Elizabeth Murchison of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom says they mapped the genome by taking samples of healthy tissue from two devils in Hobart and Sydney.
She presented her team's research today at the Australasian Microarray & Associated Technologies Association conference in Hobart.
"The devil is under serious threat of extinction because of a transmissible cancer which is affecting their population, and cancer is caused by mutations in genes," says Murchison.
"But of course the devil being a marsupial, being an unusual animal - we have no genetic sequence, no genetic tools available to understand the devil's genes and therefore to understand the cancer.
"So the first step of starting to understand the cancer is to sequence the genome of the devil so we have an entire map of the devil's DNA in order to find out where the genes are.
"[We can] therefore find out where the devil's cancer mutations are, which could help us start to develop therapies and cures for the devil, at least to help conservation efforts."
Comparing good and bad
Murchison says the next step is to compare the genome map of healthy devil tissue with diseased cells.
"As the cancer has grown and emerged it has acquired thousands of mutations. Only a small subset of these mutations actually cause the cancer," she says.
"So the challenge now is to go through these mutations and figure out which ones of these mutations are cancer causing.
"We can then look at the cancers and find anything that's different or wrong. We'll know that those are mutations which are candidates for having caused the devil cancer."
Murchison says mapping the genome will help to conserve both captive and wild devil populations.
"This gene map will help us to assess the diversity of different types of genetics out there in the wild in order to help us design conservation efforts which will hopefully help us protect the devils still out in the wild," she said.
"[It will] also assist with conservation efforts with devils that are in captivity - quarantine populations - to make sensible choices about captive breeding, matings."
But Murchison says the work is complicated and it will be months before researchers have a handle on which mutations are likely to be cancer-causing.
"But we have a good clue because there's a lot of very good studies of human cancers which have pinpointed a number of genes which are involved in cancer in humans," she said.
"Devils, although they look quite different to humans, they're actually genetically quite close to humans and so we are able to use these clues we've learned from human cancers and transfer them into the devil and look for similar mutations which may tell us which ones are the culprits."