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Sequencing of the devil genome - a conservation project

Chapter 4 – The science selected for study

4.8 Sequencing of the devil genome - a conservation project

These experiments were to test whether or not the DFTD researchers could develop a vaccine, which would enable these devils to mount a resistance to DFTD. However, all three devils succumbed to the disease, which suggests the experiment failed. The results of the experiment have never been published and the cause of the devils’ cancers has not been explained. It is also not known if there were experimental controls on variables such as contaminants in the food and water or the environment of the devils in the experiment.

The discovery of resistance within the devil population or the development of a vaccine for DFTD does not appear likely within the foreseeable future. New researchers have now embarked on the sequencing of the entire devil genome to meet the challenges and enable a conservation project to maximize devil genetic diversity.

Devil population that is resistant to this infection’.100 It is to be undertaken at the Schuster Lab at Penn State University, US, by an Australian scientist Dr Vanessa Hayes and Professor Stefan Schuster. Dr Hayes is group leader for the Cancer Genetics Group of the Children’s Cancer Research Institute (CCRI) and Adjunct Professor of Biology, Pennsylvania State University.101 Hayes is currently working on the effect of DNA variation on prostate cancer risk in Australia and was recruited to CCIA in 2008 to establish a state-of-the-art genomics laboratory with new generation sequencing technologies. Hayes in an ABC interview with Felicity Ogilvie said that the ‘reason why these animals cannot fight the cancer is because it hasn’t got enough genetic diversity’.102 The plan is to ‘create as much diversity as we can’.103

The sequencing of the devil genome began when Elizabeth Murchison requested DNA samples from the Tasmanian devil so she could research DFTD at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). After originally being denied access to the devil material by the DPIPWE, the Tasmanian government, following strong criticism, conceded samples would be sent.104 The CSHL research team formed a collaboration with 454 Life Sciences to sequence parts of the devil genome. In an interview the director of research at the CSHL, David L Spector, said “[o]ur efforts to sequence the devil’s genome mark the first time anyone has attempted to use the technology for exploring this particular type of cancer biology” and further stated “[w]hen we have a complete

100 Media Release, 22 September 2008, Kids Raise Money to save the Tassie devil and find a cure for children’s cancer, Children’s Cancer Institute Australia, Sydney, Australia

101 Australian-Canadian Prostate Cancer Research Alliance, Dr Vanessa Hayes. Available at:

http://www.aus-canprostatealliance.org/Members/vhayes-40ccia.unsw.edu.au last accessed 31 December 2012

102 Ogilvie F, 2008, Tassie devil may help human cancer research, Australian Broadcasting Commission The World Today, 18 December. Available at:

http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2008/s2450069.htm last accessed 25 April 2013

103 ibid.

104 ABC Online, 2006, Devil DNA to be sent to US for facial tumour research. Available at:

http://www.abc.net.au/newsitems/200611/s1794013.htm last accessed 2 June 2007

view of the devil tumor genes, scientists will be able to identify the cancer causing genes, which may lead to the development of therapies and vaccines”.105454 Life Sciences is a Roche company and according to their website a center of excellence of Roche Applied Science.

On the Save the Tasmanian Devil website under the heading ‘Using genetics to guide selective breeding’ Hayes is reported to have said ‘the cheetah is a perfect comparison to the devil’.106 In support of the conservation effort she is quoted as saying “The cheetah was headed for extinction due to in-breeding and low genetic diversity until genetics was used to guide selective breeding”.107 The genetic studies had now shifted from studies of low MHC diversity as a possible reason for the transmission of the cancer, to finding enough genetic diversity to save the species.

On 18 June 2009 the ABC program Catalyst ran an update on the progress of the sequencing of the devil genome.108 Hayes appeared on the program with a map, Figure 4:1 below, showing the genetic diversity in nearly 200 devils from across Tasmania.

There are five groups, A to E, shown in different colours.

105 Bono J, 2008, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Researchers Race Against Time to Save Tasmanian Devils, Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory. Available at:

http://www.cshl.edu/public/releases/08_save_taz.html last accessed 10 May 2009

106 Save the Tasmanian Devil, 2008, Using genetics to guide selective breeding, DPIPWE, Hobart.

Available at:

http://www.tassiedevil.com.au/tasdevil.nsf/0/e7e180ed50a05a5dca2576d200179c84!OpenDocument&Cli ck= last accessed 3 October 2013

107 ibid.

108 Australian Broadcasting Commission Television, Catalyst, Devil in the Detail, 18 June 2009.

Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/2601084.htm# last accessed 11 April 2012

Figure 4:1 Genetic variation in Tasmanian devil populations109

This map confirms Menna Jones’ and colleagues’ research findings published in 2003 that a distinct population exists on the west coast and three or more genetically different groups also exist on the east coast.110 Professor Woods and colleagues had also considered the west coast devils genetically different enough from the east coast devils to be used in their experiments with devil resistance when they used Cedric a devil bred from a west coast male.

The Tasmanian devils have probably moved through population bottlenecks in the past reducing their genetic diversity but in 1996, when the first devil with DFTD was photographed, the population numbered approximately 150,000. The devils had retained sufficient genetic diversity to breed successfully and re-populate to such an extent that they were at the time considered a pest.

109 ibid.

110 Jones M, Paetkau D, Geffen E & Moritz C, 2003, Microsatellites for the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrissi) in Molecular Ecology Notes, Vol 3(2), pp 277-279