Scientists eye genome mapping to help chlamydia-stricken koalas

Desiree Burns
July 5, 2018

The project, dubbed the Koala Genome Consortium, was published on Monday in "Nature Genetics", detailing how the researchers sequenced the full koala genome with a 95.1% accuracy - nearly as accurate as the sequenced human genome.

Figuring out their genome - spelling out all the genes and which chromosome, or DNA molecule, each gene is on - gives biologists the opportunity to identify genes related to the koala's response to viruses, and identify boundaries of population diversity that can direct conservation efforts, she says.

The sequence data has since been made available to scientists worldwide, and has been put in public databases. O'Neill, director of UConn's Systems Genomics Institute, specializes in marsupials, and was also involved in the first marsupial genome ever sequenced - the tammar wallaby.

Wild koalas are now found in eucalyptus forest and woodlands across Eastern Australia (Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland), and have been translocated to other sites, such as south eastern South Australia and onto some islands.

"The genome provides a springboard for the conservation of this biologically unique species", said co-lead author Katherine Belov from the University of Sydney in a release.

The five year project was completed by a global consortium of 54 scientists from 29 organisations.

"The Koala Genome Consortium has been an ambitious journey affording us great insights into the genetic building blocks that make up a koala - one of Australia's, as well as the world's, most charismatic and iconic mammals", Professor Johnson said.

Director and CEO, Australian Museum, Kim McKay, AO congratulated Professor Johnson and the team on this achievement.

"Because of its high quality, this genome is now a fundamental resource for all the other marsupial genomes which have yet to be generated and studied".

Professor Jennifer Graves, AO, Distinguished Professor of Genetics, La Trobe University and victor of the 2017 PM's Prize for Science, said: "We could never have imagined, when we were pioneering koala genetics in the 1980s, that one day we'd have the entire koala genome sequence".

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"This opens up all sorts of ways we can monitor the genetic health of koala populations", said researcher Jennifer Graves of La Trobe University in a statement. The koala genome has been sequenced to an accuracy of 95.1%, which is comparable to that of the human genome.

The 3.4 billion base pairs of the published koala genome were sequenced at the Ramaciotti Centre for Genomics, at the University of New South Wales, using new sequencing technology.

Researchers from the Earlham Institute in the United Kingdom noticed that the koala genome has a greater number and diversity of genes known to code for metabolic enzymes in the liver that help break down toxins like those found in eucalyptus leaves.

The new study identified genes responsible for liver detoxification that likely permitted koalas to become such dietary specialists, thus avoiding competition for food with other animals.

Left untreated, chlamydia infections can lead to blindness, severe bladder inflammation, infertility and death in koalas.

Now that they've discovered these koala milk properties, scientists could potentially develop a vaccine for diseases like this.

The koala bear has a highly specific diet and habitat loss and clearing of native vegetation has brought down its population.

Koala numbers were decimated partly by a thriving pelt trade from the 1870s to the late 1920s.

The discovery "allows us to make recommendations for how to preserve the populations with high genetic diversity and how animals might be translocated to improve the diversity of inbred populations", Johnson said.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature qualifies the koala's protection status as "vulnerable". Note: material may have been edited for length and content. W., Nash, W. J., ...

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