Tassie Devils Are Learning to Live With Facial Tumours

According to new research, Tassie devils have developed evolutionary responses that could help them live with ‘devil facial tumour disease’.

Researchers from the University of Tasmania and France have found that tassie devils have triggered evolutionary responses that may help them coexist with the deadly cancer known as devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), according to new research. The study reviewed evolutionary adaptations Tasmanian devils have been developing over the last 20 years in response to DFTD.

The research found that Tassie devils have phenotypic plasticity to the cancer that has been slowly killing off populations throughout Tasmania. Dr Rodrigo Hamede, Co-author from the University of Tasmania’s School of Natural Sciences explained that the results were promising.

“The prospects for devils were very grim only a few years ago and the threat of local extinction was real,” he said.

“But while hosts and infectious diseases are ‘enemies’ with opposite interests they must learn to live with each other.

“All the evidence suggests that devils have the capacity to adapt to this transmissible cancer at genetic and phenotypic levels. We have been observing natural selection in action, and this has happened in a very short amount of time.”

Deakin University's Dr Beata Ujvari has previously shown that devils with more types of certain immune molecules have a smaller chance of attracting the disease.

“For example, active immune responses to DFTD and even tumour regression have recently been observed in several animals, showing a very promising sign that could be exploited for the management of the species,” Dr Ujvari said.

“The evidence of devils being able to combat DFTD is great news for managing affected populations."

“The immune signatures observed in devils can be used to improve the genetic management of insurance populations and assist research aimed at developing a vaccine. Future research efforts to fight DFTD will need to focus on the adaptive and natural immune responses from devils to the cancer.”

Video: Rodrigo Hamade Ross

According to Tracey Russell, a University of Sydney PhD candidate, devils with particular attributes such as choosing to mate with multiple partners or picking the best mate to reproduce with,  helps maintain genetic diversity, giving the devils more potential to respond to DFTD.

Dr Hamede explains, though extinction due to DFTD is fairly unlikely in the short term, efforts need to be maintained towards other strains of cancer such as the transmissible cancer discovered just three years ago.

“Understanding how devils and DFTD are evolving side-by-side is very important for predicting the evolutionary dynamics of DFT2,” he said.

This information, according to Co-author Frederic Thomas from the Centre of Ecology and Evolution of Cancer and The National Centre for Scientific Research in France, could help scientists gain a better understanding of human cancer biology and evolution.

Lead image: A wild Tasmanian Tiger, Rodrigo Hamede Ross

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