Twenty years ago, a new disease emerged in Tasmania that threatened the iconic Tasmanian Devil with extinction. We determined that the disease was caused by a contagious cancer that was spread as an allograft by biting. The tumour spread quickly due to low levels of genetic diversity in the species and the tumours capacity to evade the immune system. Over 85% of the species was lost. Yet – although predicted, extinction has not occurred. Both devils and tumours evolved. The age structure of devil populations changed. Devils persisted in the wild, albeit in small, isolated populations. I will discuss the role that genomics has played in understanding devils and the disease. I will explain how we have used genomics to manage genetic diversity within Australia’s largest captive breeding program and how we are now using insurance population animals for genetic rescue of populations in the wild. Beyond that, I will talk about how we are leveraging this approach to conserve an additional 50 threatened Australian species.
Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) Professor of Comparative Genomics, The University of Sydney
Professor Kathy Belov is a Professor of Comparative Genomics in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences in the Faculty of Science at the University of Sydney. Kathy’s research expertise is in the area of comparative genomics and immunogenetics of Australian wildlife, including Tasmanian devils and koalas, two iconic species that are threatened by disease processes. Kathy’s research team has participated in a range of marsupial and monotreme genome projects where they have gained insights into genes involved in immunity and defense, including platypus venom genes and novel antimicrobial peptides in the pouch. Kathy has published over 150 peer reviewed papers, including papers in Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and PLoS Biology. Kathy has received two Eureka awards, the Crozier medal from the Genetics Society of Australasia and the Fenner medal from the Australian Academy of Science for her research. She is currently the immediate past president of the Genetics Society of Australasia and a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW.
Kathy is also the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) at the University of Sydney. In this position she take responsibility for managing the development and execution of the University’s global engagement strategy. Kathy is passionate about mentoring others, particularly women in STEM.