Media release: KOALA GENOME PROJECT

Saving Koalas: A world-first mapping of the Koala genome. 

Tuesday April 9, 2013. Today, Australian Museum Director, Mr. Frank Howarth PSM, announced that a consortium of Australian scientists led by Dr Rebecca Johnson of the Museum and Professor Peter Timms of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has achieved a world-first major breakthrough by completing an initial sequencing of the koala genome – the genetic blueprint for koalas.

Mr. Howarth congratulated the scientists working on this landmark achievement, which promises to lead to a new understanding of koala biology, transform how we study and manage them, as well as new ways to diagnose and treat the diseases affecting Australia’s iconic koala.

“Prior to this ground-breaking study, virtually nothing was known about the immune system of Australia’s ‘honorary citizens.’ For the first time, we now have an insight into how and why the two major diseases threatening the koala, Chlamydia and Koala retrovirus (KoRV), have had such a devastating effect on our iconic native species.” Mr. Howarth said at today’s launch of the Koala Genome Consortium.

QUT’s Professor Timms said part of the data is helping researchers understand why Queensland and New South Wales koala populations have been crippled by the spread of Chlamydia while Victorian populations remain virtually unaffected.

Scientists at the Australian Museum and QUT have already discovered over twelve thousand Koala genes including the Koala interferon gamma (IFN-g) gene - a chemical messenger that plays a key role in the marsupials defence against cancer, viruses and intracellular bacteria. 

“We know that koalas are infected with various strains of Chlamydia, but we do not know why some animals go on to get severe clinical disease and some do not,” Professor Timms explained.

Scientists at the Australian Museum and QUT have already discovered over twelve thousand Koala genes including the Koala interferon gamma (IFN-g) gene - a chemical messenger that plays a key role in the marsupials defence against cancer, viruses and intracellular bacteria.

QUT scientist Dr. Adam Polkinghorne said “This finding promises to benefit gene discovery and the development of immunological tools that will also help us fight diseases in our other threatened and endangered wildlife species.”

Importantly, this research also revealed that the majority of koala genomic sequences shared similarities to that of the Tasmanian Devil, showcasing that comparisons of the immune genes of marsupials will provide insights into how they combat disease.

Dr Rebecca Johnson from the Australian Museum’s Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics said, “Analysis of this huge data set is already revealing the complete repertoire of koala genes, with more than 12,000 identified so far. This fantastic resource opens the way to exciting new research possibilities incorporating the rich collection of historic samples housed in Natural History Museums around the world. The thousands of new genetic markers in this genomic data will allow the Museum to analyse the genetic structure of koala populations at a level of detail comparable to most human forensic analyses, and this will be a major focus of our future work.”

While the consortium leading the project already contains more than 12 scientists, veterinarians and bioinformaticians, the team have only just embarked on this voyage of discovery. Australian and International experts will now be invited to participate in a larger new Koala Genome Consortium which will supplement existing national and international koala research programs. To ensure this sea of data is fully utilized and have real world outcomes an additional $5 million of funding will need to be sourced over the next 5 years.

Professor Timms pointed out that “Funding to date has resulted in a rich koala genetic bank. However, we require more help to fully
explore and analyse the data to ensure the continued survival of this iconic species.” To improve the completeness and accuracy of the genome sequence this project requires an additional $5million of funding to cover the laboratory and bioinformatic costs of completing the first draft of the genome. This will lead to substantial flow-on benefits to the broader koala and scientific community.

Mr Howarth said “The Australian Museum plays an important role in advising government and industry on population genetic health of many native Australian animals, and for over a decade has been providing advice based on population genetic data for some NSW koala populations. Today’s announcement represents a major advance in saving the NSW and Queensland koalas from these terrible diseases and securing the future for this iconic species.”

Mr. Howarth acknowledged and thanked existing funders: the Australian Museum Foundation, Bioplatforms Australia, QUT and the ARC Linkage Scheme as well as UNSW’s Ramaciotti Centre for library preparation, sequencing and outstanding technical expertise.

http://koalagenome.org/

 


Claire Vince
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