An Australian-led team of scientists says it has successfully mapped koala genes for the first time, which could help conservation efforts and create new treatments for disease.
The project, dubbed the Koala Genome Consortium, was published on Monday in “Nature Genetics,” detailing how the researchers sequenced the full koala genome with a 95.1% accuracy – almost as accurate as the sequenced human genome.
The sequenced genome, which acts as a genetic code or map, provides a wealth of new information, researchers say.
They now understand how koalas can eat highly toxic eucalyptus leaves, how koala joeys are born without immune systems, and how mother koalas produce milk that changes composition as their joeys grow.
“This opens up all sorts of ways we can monitor the genetic health of koala populations,” said researcher Jennifer Graves of La Trobe University in a statement.
This genetic information lends researchers hope that they can develop a vaccine against chlamydia, which has caused infertility and blindness in koalas across New South Wales and Queensland.
Another big threat is inbreeding. As koala habitats have been destroyed over the years, there has been decreased “habitat connectivity” and greater inbreeding, which in turn leads to less genetic diversity in koala populations.
“Ensuring this genetic diversity is conserved in concert with other conservation measures to protect habitat, reduce vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease, are the keys to the long-term survival of the koala,” said Rebecca Johnson, director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, one of the lead researchers.
“Our next efforts must be in the application of these findings to genetically manage koala populations, advance the treatment of the diseases affecting koalas, with the goal of conserving this very important species.”
Koala populations have plummeted since European settlement. Though they are slowly recovering in some Australian states, they are still listed as “vulnerable” by the Australian government.
There is also the possibility that future marsupial genome studies “could be leveraged for human health,” said researcher Graham Etherington from the Earlham Institute in a statement.
The team was composed of 54 scientists from 29 institutions in seven countries. They began work in 2013.
Using supercomputers and new technology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, the team sequenced over 20,000 genes, which they then assembled into a completed genome.
The sequence data has since been made available to scientists worldwide, and has been put in public databases.