Tasmanian devils cancer
A new study of Tasmanian devils has uncovered signs that the animals are rapidly evolving to defend themselves against an infectious face cancer.
DFTD was first noticed by a wildlife photographer and traced by researchers to a female animal. Biting spreads the tumors, which arose from mutated neural support cells called Schwann cells. The tumors metastasize readily to the lymph nodes, lungs, and kidneys in the animals. Transmissible cancers are very rare, although not all are fatal. So far, such tumors have been found in only three species—dogs, Tasmanian devils, and soft-shell clams.
But now, scientists mining a vast trove of devil DNA have discovered that two regions in Tasmanian devils’ genomes are changing in response to the rapid spread of the cancer.
“Our study suggests hope for the survival of the Tasmanian devil in the face of this devastating disease,” Andrew Storfer, a professor of biology at WSU and one of the study’s authors, said in the news release.
Storfer said that he, along with other researchers in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, are hopeful they can soon breed DTFD-resistant devils to enhance the genetic diversity of an off-island captive insurance population.
He added that the genomic data could also be ultimately used to “help direct future research addressing important questions about the evolution of cancer transmissibility and what causes remission and reoccurrence in cancer and other diseases.”
Dr David Rollinson is a biologist at the Natural History Museum in London who specialises in the genetics of how hosts and parasites evolve together.
He said the new study was an impressive – and encouraging – example of natural selection in action.
“I find it quite exciting,” Dr Rollinson told the BBC. “There’s been great concern that the Tasmanian devils may be wiped out by this strange, transmissible cancer.
“And it now seems that there’s just a little bit of hope – that the selection pressure is actually driving a response by the devils, so they’re getting a genetic profile that might actually give them some protection.”