Lack of genetic diversity among Tasmanian devils may be making the species particularly vulnerable to an infectious facial cancer that has devastated the population in Australia, according to scientists who have sequenced the animals’ genome.
Since 1996, devil facial tumor disease – DFTD for short – has wiped out at least 60 percent of the animals living in the wild, and close to 90 percent of the animals in some areas. Experts estimate the devils may face extinction within the next 25 years unless humans intervene with a cure or other measures.
After decoding the genomes of two devils from opposite corners of the Australian island of Tasmania, researchers found that the devils shared 47 percent of the genetic markers identified.
Experts think the low genetic diversity is a consequence of widespread killing by bounty hunters, who drove the devils to the brink of extinction before laws were passed to safeguard them in 1941. With all devils alive today descended from a relatively small population, there isn’t much variation in their immune system genes. That could help explain the rapid spread of DFTD and strongly suggests that most of the animals – if not all of them – are at risk, scientists said.