In the midst of a human pandemic, we have some good news about a wildlife one: our new research, published today in Science, shows Tasmanian devils are likely to survive despite the infectious cancer that has ravaged their populations.
Tasmanian devils have been devastated by a bizarre transmissible cancer. Devil facial tumor disease, or DFTD for short, was first detected in 1996 in northeast Tasmania. Transmitted via biting, DFTD has spread over almost the entire state, reaching the west coast in the past two or three years. It has led to a decline of at least 80% in the total devil population.
This paper, in addition to several we have published recently, shows there have been rapid evolutionary changes in Tasmanian devils and in the tumors themselves since the emergence of this transmissible cancer. Already, frequencies of gene variants known to be associated with immune function in humans have increased in Tasmanian devil populations, suggesting the devils are evolving and adapting to the threat.
Contributions by Andrew Storfer, associate professor of biology, Washington State University.