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Decoding Deadly Tasmanian Devil Disease

In a recent feature in Australian Life Scientist, Fiona Wylie examines "how next-generation sequencing could save the Tasmanian devil" from the perils of devil facial tumor disease — or DFTD — which has put Sarcophilus harrisii on the endangered species list since 2008. DFTD cancer is spread "by the physical transfer of living cancer cells through biting," representing a rare mode of disease transmission, Wylie says. Elizabeth Murchison, who aims to understand DFTD and its tissue of origin, "was attracted to the challenge of genetically characterising this relatively new cancer and of Tasmanian devil genomics in general," the article says. Murchison told Australian Life Scientist that "marsupials are an understudied group of mammals in terms of genomics, and there are basically no tools at all available for this species. Luckily, new sequencing techniques and advances have allowed us to take on this sort of challenge in a way that would not have been possible even two or three years ago.' By sequencing miRNAs from an assortment of Tasmanian devil tissues, and then performing sequence analyses of the tumor and testis transcriptomes of the same animal, the team found that when compared with normal tissue, "the tumor expressed genes that matched strikingly with genes controlling nerve fiber myelination — a job carried out by oligodendrocytes in the central nervous system and by Schwann cells in the periphery," Wylie reports. The team then confirmed relevant genes using qPCA and immunohistochemical approaches. The complete results of Murchinson et al.'s investigation were published in Science earlier this year.

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