What role does the Australian Museum play in koala genome research?

The Australian Museum and its scientists play a critical role in koala genome research.

Rebecca Johnson: Koala Genome Project

Rebecca Johnson: Koala Genome Project
Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

The Australian Museum’s collection of mammals was formed in the mid-1800s and has grown to become one of the most comprehensive collections in the world. The collection currently contains approximately 48,000 specimens from over 100 different countries.

The Australian Museum Koala collection currently comprises over 290 specimens dating from the late 1870s. There are over 100 skins, 130 skulls and approximately 50 spirit preserved specimens in the collection which are available to researchers both within Australia and overseas. Many of the early specimens are ex captives from Zoos. More recently, specimens are received after they have been found dead on the road or euthanised due to severe injuries or disease

Many specimens in the collection have great historical as well as scientific value having formed the basis of the original description of a particular species when it was first named. There are over 570 of these specimens known as “type” specimens” in the collection including the only known specimens of a number of species.

One of the most important specimens is the “type” specimen of a Koala subspecies from Victoria, Phascolarctos cinereus victor, described in 1935 by the museum’s mammal curator at the time, Ellis Troughton. Other significant specimens in the collection include those donated in the 1950s from the now endangered population on Barrenjoey Peninsula in Sydney’s north.

The Koala collection has formed the basis of a number of recent research projects. DNA extracted from historical specimens from the late 1800s and early 1900s was used to examine the origins and evolution of retroviruses which increase Koala’s susceptibility to infections such as Chlamydia. Specimens used in the Koala genome sequencing project are also lodged in the collection.

Dr Rebecca Johnson , Director, Australian Museum Research Institute
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