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Sanger, Illumina Team Sequences Tasmanian Devil Genome

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Illumina announced that they have sequenced a draft version of the Tasmanian devil genome as well as a pair of cancer genomes from animals with Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease, a transmissible cancer plaguing wild devils.

The team used the Illumina HiSeq 2000 to sequence the genome of a healthy Tasmanian devil to about 80 times coverage. Using the same strategy, they also sequenced tumor DNA from two Tasmanian devils found in different parts of Tasmania that were afflicted with the contagious cancer.

Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Cancer Genome Project participant Elizabeth Murchison was scheduled to present the work during a session on population genetics at the Australasian Microarray and Associated Technologies Association meeting in Hobart, Tasmania, today.

"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," she said in a statement. "This knowledge could ultimately shape the ongoing conservation efforts in Tasmania."

Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease, which is transmitted when an affected Tasmanian devil bites uninfected animals during feeding or mating, was first detected nearly a decade and a half ago. Since then, it has been linked to a drastic decline in wild Tasmanian devil population numbers, cutting the number of animals by an estimated 80 percent or more.

Consequently, researchers have taken a keen interest in the cancer. Earlier this year, for instance, Murchison was lead author on a Science study describing efforts to profile devil facial tumors using microsatellite genotyping, mitochondrial genome analysis, transcriptome sequencing, and microRNA analyses. Findings from that study suggested the transmissible tumor disease originated from a lone cell line with features similar to Schwann cells.

By sequencing, assembling, and comparing the new trio of Tasmanian devil genomes, researchers now hope to start getting a clearer picture of genetic variations in these genomes, learning more about driver mutations behind the facial tumors, and finding clues for better tracking and treating the disease.

The team reportedly plans to sequence and compare additional facial tumors in the future. And beyond the potential applications of genomic data for Tasmanian devil conservation efforts, they noted, such sequencing strategies are expected to provide insights into cancer in general.

"We believe that this research, the first of its kind to look at this very unusual form of transmissible cancer, will also teach us important lessons about the evolution of cancers," Michael Stratton, Sanger Institute director and co-leader of the institute's Cancer Genome Project, said in a statement.

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