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Completed genome announced for Tasmanian devil

Researchers have created a draft genome sequence for the endangered Tasmanian devil and will use this to find genetic mutations in the transmissible cancer ravaging its population.

The results open the door for new research to pick out the specific mutations that drive the cancer and will lay the foundation for ongoing work to trace the spread of disease and inform the development of preclinical tests, conservation strategies and disease therapies.

The reference Tasmanian devil genome – approximately the same size as the human genome – was sequenced in eight days in one run on Illumina's HiSeq 2000. Two cancer genomes of affected animals from different parts of Tasmania were also sequenced at high coverage.

Sequencing, de novo assembly and analysis of genetic variation of the three genomes have been undertaken jointly by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Illumina.

The Tasmanian devil is at risk of extinction in the wild because of a transmissible facial cancer, which is spread between devils by the transfer of cancer cells by biting. Tasmanian devil facial tumour is almost unique in cancers of the animal kingdom in that it is transmitted by direct transplantation of cancer cells from animal to animal.

In the 14 years since the disease was first observed, the devil population has declined by more than 80 per cent.

‘This sequence is invaluable and comes at a crucial time,’ said Dr Elizabeth Murchison, a researcher at the Sanger Institute. ‘By comparing our draft sequence with samples taken from many hundreds of devils suffering from this cancer, we can begin to look at the spread of the disease, quite literally, by identifying geographical routes and barriers in its transmission. This knowledge could ultimately shape the ongoing conservation efforts in Tasmania.

‘It took ten years to sequence the draft human genome; the devil took just two months using this new technology. We are entering a new era when genome sequencing can be applied to some of our most pressing problems in real time.’

The next step will be to sequence many more Tasmanian devil facial tumour samples. By generating profiles of the mutations present in these cancers, the team hopes to improve understanding of the disease and its spread.

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