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Devils' Disease and Diversity

If a population's genetic diversity is any indication — hint: it is — the giant panda faces less of an extinction threat than humans of European descent do. However, genetic diversity isn't the only force behind extinctions, nor is it often the driving one. A species' habitat and population size also play large roles in extinction events, and climate change and disease have also shown to be powerful drivers of such events. Pennsylvania State University's Stephan Schuster and his colleagues aim to help save the endangered Tasmanian devil — whose population is dwindling due to the rapid spread of a species-specific infectious cancer, devil tumor facial disease — using a genomics-based approach. (Our sister publication, GenomeWeb Daily News has more on Schuster and other researchers' Tasmanian devil and devil tumor facial disease sequencing efforts, here.) As part of the large-scale conservation effort he calls "Project Ark," Schuster and his team intend to genotype hundreds of Tasmanian devils, he told attendees of the sixth annual Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute User Meeting held in Walnut Creek, Calif., this week. To date, he said, devil tumor facial disease does not seem to have affected the species' mitogenomic diversity. However, in order to prevent that from happening, Schuster et al. have collected more than 170 animals for their "ark." The goal, he said, is to round up 500 genetically diverse Tasmanian devils for the ark. Ultimately, Schuster and his colleagues are hopeful that the genomic information they derive from their genotyping investigations could in the future be used for pedigree selection and other conservation efforts. Without intervention, Schuster expects the Tasmanian devil will go extinct in 10 years' time. "This is a great example of how conservation biology works," he said of Project Ark. "Genetics can help to prevent extinctions."

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