A paper recently published in Cell shows that the cancer plaguing Tasmanian devils started spreading about 15 years ago from one infected female devil, reports Scientific American's Katherine Harmon. The study shows that the disease spreads via live cancer cells, and the whole-genome sequence done by the researchers confirms that all the tumors currently afflicting the animals contain cells from the original devil, Harmon adds. In a statement, the paper's lead author, Elizabeth Murchison of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, called the original animal "the immortal devil."
"The researchers studied tumors from 104 tumors collected from Tasmanian devils from various locations on the island and found that there were separate geographic groups of cancer types — but that all of them contained cells from the original female," Harmon says. "More detailed genetic details could point the way to targeted cancer drugs. It might also suggest how the cancer is able to sneak past the immune system and start its explosive growth so quickly."
Further, an article in PLoS Genetics this week has more on the tumors' karyotypes.