-- Robert Preidt
TUESDAY, June 28 (HealthDay News) -- Analyzing the genomes of
Tasmanian devils could help prevent the species' extinction from a
contagious cancer, according to scientists.
Tasmanian devils are a marsupial found in the wild only on the
Australian island of Tasmania. They're being decimated by Devil
Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), which disfigures the animals and
causes death from starvation or suffocation within months. The
cancer was first noted on the east coast of Tasmania 15 years ago
and has since spread rapidly on the island.
Penn State University scientists and colleagues conducted
whole-genome analyses of a healthy devil and one that died of DFTD
and used that information to create a theoretical model to predict
which individual animals should be kept in captivity to maximize
the chances of preserving enough genetic diversity to prevent the
extinction of the species.
If a number of healthy Tasmanian devils were kept in "protective
custody" at zoos and other facilities until the disease ran its
course, the captive animals could be released back into their
natural habitat in order to re-establish the species, the
"However, it's not just a matter of scooping up a few individuals at random and locking them away," Webb Miller, a professor of biology and computer science and engineering at Penn State, said in a university news release.
"Our team developed a smarter, more calculated approach: We asked ourselves, which individuals would be the best candidates for 'protective custody,' and what criteria would we use to make those determinations?," Miller explained. "We soon realized that the answer was to compile genetic data and to analyze it in novel ways."
The study is published June 27 in the journal
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service has more about the
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