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The Tasmanian devil is beating a deadly cancer

Secondo un nuovo studio il diavolo della Tasmania avrebbe sviluppato una resistenza al tumore facciale che sta portando la specie verso l’estinzione.

The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), which is the largest carnivorous marsupial that survived in the Australian continent after the appearance of the Homo sapiens, seemed to be doomed to extinction. This animal, named after its fierce temperament while hunting and mating, is threatened by a deadly disease that has decimated the population over just a few years: the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). Fortunately, however, something is changing. It turns out that nature is helping these animals in evolving a genetic resistance to the contagious cancer.

tasmanian devil
The fierce temperament of the Tasmanian devils contributed to the spread of the disease, which can be transmitted through bites.

How the cancer has pushed the Tasmanian devil to the brink of extinction

The devil facial tumour disease has been first diagnosed in 1996 and is an extremely contagious cancer that has a 100 per cent mortality rate. The cancer is transmittable through mating, bites, or the consumption of a prey that has previously been infected.

tasmanian devil
The devil facial tumour disease involves the formation of neoplastic tissues around the eyes and the mouth of the animal, preventing it from eating and condemning it to death (AAP Image/Sarah Peck) NO ARCHIVING

Evolution is avoiding extinction

Nearly 80 per cent of the Tasmanian devils died because of the disease, but the latest findings give a glimpse of hope for the future of these ancient mammals. According to a study published in Nature Communications, some individuals have started to evolve a resistance to the disease. Andrew Storfer, geneticist at the Washington State University and lead author of the study, has examined the DNA of almost 300 individuals to understand why a number of devils are immune to the facial tumour. Storfer and his team have identified two genomic regions in which changes are taking place and found them related to immune functions.

tasmanian devil
A Tasmanian devil

A rapid evolution

These genetic mutations have taken place rapidly, over just 4-6 generations. According to researchers, who have been working to save Tasmanian devils for over 20 years, the individuals resistant to the cancer have transmitted the DNA to their cubs, which are immune as well. These young, resistant devils could be the future of the species and allow the Tasmanian devils keep howling at the moon.

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