A virus is attacking koalas’ genes. But their DNA is fighting back


Keith Chappell, The University of Queensland

A virus that infects koalas is steadily integrating itself into their DNA, ensuring that it is passed down from generation to generation. But the koala genome is defending itself, revealing that DNA has its own immune system to shut down invaders.

The virus, called koala retrovirus (KoRV), is linked to weakened immunity, cancer, and chlamydia infection in koalas. All retroviruses hijack the DNA in some cells of their host’s body, but not all of them manage to be transmitted to the host’s offspring.

Your DNA is 8% virus

Over the millions of years of evolutionary history, retroviruses have at one time or another made their way into the genomes of all species of vertebrates that we have studied.

We know about these ancient infections because retroviruses sometimes infect the animal’s sperm or egg cells, which means the virus incorporates its own DNA sequences into the genome that is passed from generation to generation.




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These viral sequences can contribute to disease, but have also been “co-opted” by the host animals for processes that are essential to normal development. As much as 8% of the human genome is made up of the remnants of infectious viruses.

While we know that retroviruses have frequently appeared during evolutionary history, we don’t know much about how retroviral sequences infiltrate sperm and egg cells, or how these cells react.

Catching a retrovirus in the act

Almost all known retrovirus genome invasions happened millions of years ago. However, KoRV is a recently identified exception. The virus spreads between individuals, but is also infecting sperm and egg cells, so many koalas are born with this pathogen as part of their genome.

My colleagues and I at the University of Queensland are collaborating with scientists from the University of Massachusetts Medical School to analyse how koala sperm and egg cells respond to KoRV-A infection.

Our findings, published today in Cell, suggest these cells mount a novel “innate genome immune response” to viral infection, which may help control the spread of infectious KoRV.

Within this project, the team analysed DNA and RNA from different tissue samples from deceased wild koalas from South East Queensland. (Like DNA, RNA also contains genetic information about the koalas – but it is also what KoRV’s own genome is made of.)

The team specifically looked for short sequences of RNA, between 23 and 35 nucleotides long, known as PIWI Interacting RNAs (piRNAs). Clusters of piRNA sequences are retained within the genome and serve as a kind of memory bank of undesirable sequences – signatures of invading viruses – to be targeted.

An immune system for the genome

Based on our new findings, we suggest that there is a specialised immune system to defend against retroviral genome invasion. Like the ordinary immune system, this one includes an innate response – a sort of general-purpose defence against attackers – and an adaptive response, which learns to recognise specific pathogens and take them down.

At the early stages of egg or sperm infection, the altered DNA sequence results in a “molecular pattern” that is recognised by an innate genome immune system, which stops the activity of the virus and starts producing signature piRNA sequences to recognise the invader.




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The innate immune response works until a memory of the genome invader is created and a sequence-specific adaptive response kicks in.

We propose a framework through which a sequence from an invading retrovirus can first have its genes “silenced”, and then through targeted processes it eventually becomes an integral part of the host genome.

This “genome immune system” changes our understanding of what shapes the genomes of all animals. No more can we view the genome as a defenceless entity governed purely by natural selection – it fights back.The Conversation

Keith Chappell, Senior Research Fellow, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Koala-detecting dogs sniff out flaws in Australia’s threatened species protection



Maya the detection dog was part of a team sniffing out koalas.
Marie Colibri/USC

Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast; Anthony Schultz, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast; David Schoeman, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Kylie Scales, University of the Sunshine Coast

In a country like Australia – a wealthy, economically and politically stable nation with multiple environmental laws and comparatively effective governance – the public could be forgiven for assuming that environmental laws are effective in protecting threatened species.

But our new research, published recently in Animal Conservation, used koala-detecting dogs to find vulnerable koalas in places developers assumed they wouldn’t live. This highlights the flaws of environmental protections that prioritise efficiency over accuracy.

The dog squad: from left to right, Baxter, Billie-Jean, Bear, Charlie and Maya sniffed out vulnerable koalas to see how many are living in areas due to be developed in Queensland.
Author provided

Environmental impact assessments

Every new infrastructure project must carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to see whether it will affect a threatened species. If this is the case, the logical next step is to try to avoid this by redesigning the project.

But this rarely happens in reality, as we saw recently for the endangered black-throated finch.




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More often, when the EIA suggests an unavoidable impact the response is to identify mitigation and compensation measures, often in the form of “offsets”. These are swathes of comparable habitat assumed to “compensate” the impacted species for the habitat lost to the development.

To take koalas as an example, developers building houses might be required to buy and secure land to compensate for lost habitat. Or a new road might need fencing and underpasses to allow koalas safe passage across (or under) roads.

Koalas can be found in many environments, from the bush to cities.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast

These steps are defined in environmental regulations, and depend on the results from the original EIA.




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An issue of assumptions

With koala numbers still declining, we investigated whether current survey guidelines for EIA were indeed adequate.




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For an EIA to be effective, it is fundamental the environmental impact of a future development can be accurately anticipated and therefore appropriately managed. This relies, as a first step, on quantifying how the project will affect threatened species through ecological surveys of presence and extent of threatened species within the project’s footprint.

There are government guidelines to prescribe how these ecological surveys are performed. Every project has time and budget constraints, and therefore survey guidelines seek efficiency in accurately determining species’ presence.

Dr Romane Cristescu performing a koala survey with detection dog Maya.
Marie Colibri

As such, the Australian guidelines recommend focusing survey effort where there is the highest chance of finding a species of concern for the project. This sounded very logical – until we started testing the underlying assumptions.

We used a very accurate survey method – detection dogs – to locate koala droppings, and therefore identify koala habitat, in the entire footprint of proposed projects across Queensland. We did not target our efforts in areas we expected to be successful – therefore leaving out the bias of other surveys.

Unpredictable koalas

We found koalas did not always behave as one would expect. Targeting effort to certain areas, the “likely” koala habitat, to try increase efficiency risked missing koala hotspots.

In particular, the landscape koalas use is intensely modified by human activity. Koalas, like us, love living on the coast and in rich alluvial plains. That means we unexpectedly found them right in the middle of urban areas, along roads that – because they have the final remaining trees in dense agricultural landscapes – are now (counterintuitively) acting as corridors.

This koala was found in a built-up area not captured by traditional surveys.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast



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Assumptions about where koalas live can massively underestimate the impact of new infrastructure. In one case study, the habitat defined by recommended survey methods was about 50 times smaller than the size of the habitat actually affected.

If surveys miss or underestimate koala habitat while attempting to measure development impact, then we cannot expect to adequately avoid, mitigate or compensate the damage. If the first step fails, the rest of the process is fatally compromised. And this is bad news for koalas, among many other threatened species.

All parts of the landscape are important

What is needed is a paradigm shift. In a world where humans have affected every ecosystem on Earth, we cannot focus on protecting only pristine, high-quality areas for our threatened species. We can no longer afford to rely on assumptions.

This might seem like a big, and therefore expensive, ask. Yet ecosystems are a common resource owned by all of us, and those who seek to exploit these commons should bear the cost of demonstrating they understand (and therefore can mitigate) their impact.

The alternative is to risk society having to shoulder the environmental debt, as we have seen with abandoned mines.




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The burden of proof should squarely reside with the proponent of a project to study thoroughly the project impact.

A koala found in the wild while performing an Environmental Impact Assessment.
Detection Dogs for Conservation, University of the Sunshine Coast

This is where the issue lies – proponents of projects are under time and budget constraints that push them to look for efficiencies. In this tug of war, the main losers tend to be the threatened species. We argue that this cannot continue, because for many threatened species, there is no longer much room for mistakes.

The environmental regulations that define survey requirements need to prioritise accuracy over efficiency.

A review of Australian’s primary environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is due to begin by October this year. We call on the government to use this opportunity to ensure threatened species are truly protected during development.


The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Dr David Dique and Russell L. Miller to this research and the two original papers this piece is based upon (feature paper and response).The Conversation

Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast; Anthony Schultz, PhD Candidate, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast; David Schoeman, Professor of Global-Change Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Kylie Scales, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What does a koala’s nose know? A bit about food, and a lot about making friends


Ben Moore, Western Sydney University and Edward Narayan, Western Sydney University

The koala’s nose is distinctive – it’s a big black leathery rectangle in the middle of a round, grey face that’s surprisingly soft to the touch. And every koala nose is unique.

A study of 108 wild koalas found distinctive patterns of pigmentation around the nostrils allowed observers on the ground to reliably recognise individual animals, even when they’re in the trees.




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But more importantly for the koala, the nose is an important connection between this iconic marsupial and the world it lives in, from sniffing out toxins to saying hello.

And it starts right at birth. The tiny newborn koala, despite weighing only half a gram, already has the ability to smell and feel its way towards the milky scent of the pouch and its mother’s teats.

A koala’s nose knows how to sniff out toxins

Koalas, famously, spend most of their time sleeping or resting. When they’re not sleeping or resting, they are mostly feeding or moving between trees. In both of these activities – or in other words, for most of their waking hours – they follow their nose.

Koalas nearly always smell their food carefully before eating. So many koala experts were surprised to learn recently that koalas don’t have particularly many genes for olfactory receptors – the receptors found on nerve cells in the nasal cavity for detecting different smells.




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This matches up with anatomical observations that also suggest that among marsupials, the koala’s sense of smell is probably relatively poor, partly as a result of features associated with conserving water.

Gum leaves are chock full of natural plant toxins and other unpleasant chemicals, and koalas choose trees that minimise their exposure to the worst of these.

But most of the toxins that influence koala feeding are not volatile – they have no smell. It falls to the koala’s sense of taste (and genes for taste receptors are especially abundant in the koala genome) to make a final decision on whether a leaf is safe to eat.

Fortunately for the koala, the only-slightly-toxic compounds called terpenes (the invigorating scent of Eucalyptus oil) are highly volatile and offer a useful cue to the levels of other toxins in a leaf.

And one advantage of being a specialist feeder with a basic diet, is that there are relatively few odour cues to learn. It’s also fortunate the leaves koalas are checking out are right in front of their noses!

The koala’s nose might not only smell plant toxins, it may also play a minor role in detoxifying them.




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We know enzymes in our own noses can detoxify certain drugs, and in other specialist herbivores, such as woodrats, many of the same enzymes that detoxify natural plant toxins and drugs in the liver are also expressed in the lining of the nose.

These enzymes likely help stop the nose from becoming overwhelmed by odours and maintain sensitivity. Critically, they also protect the central nervous system, as nasal tissue is the only thing separating inhaled toxins from the brain.

A koala’s nose knows how to make friends

Sniffing out food is important, but it’s not the koala’s biggest forte. So why the big schnoz? The answer may lie with the importance of social communication.

Although the koala genome has relatively few olfactory receptors, it’s rich in vomeronasal receptors, which are expressed in cells in the nasal cavity that are sensitive to moisture-borne molecules like pheromones.

Koalas are generally solitary creatures, but that’s not to say they don’t know their neighbours. Along with the distinctive loud bellowing of male koalas during the breeding season, olfactory communication is what koalas use to find or avoid each other.

A male koala’s breeding season bellow. Video: Denise Dearing.

Koalas of both sexes often spend considerable time smelling the base and trunk of a tree before they decide whether to climb up or move on elsewhere. When they enter or leave a tree, koalas commonly dribble a stream of urine down the trunk, leaving a trail of chemicals that potentially reveal information about the koala’s sex, identity, dominance, relatedness to other koalas, readiness to mate, disease status and even what they’ve been eating.

But if koala urine is a book written in scent, the secretions of the male koala’s sternal gland are more like a barcode.

This gland is obvious as a yellow-brown stained patch of bare skin in the middle of male koalas’ chests, and offers a straightforward way to tell the sexes apart.

It secretes an oily mixture of fatty acids and other chemicals, which are then transformed into an even more complex chemical mixture by the unique bacterial community occupying each koala’s gland. The end result is a distinctive bouquet and an unmistakable badge of identity for each koala.

Nose kisses from a koala

Aside from these fascinating nasal abilities, there is one more thing that we love about the koala’s nose.

When wild koalas are brought into captivity, they continue to rely on their nose to learn about the strange new world around them – that includes their food and branches, but also the scientists and carers moving around them.




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They will pull anything of interest into smelling range, making them one of the few wild animals that will rub noses to say hello with humans and fellow koalas, even when barely acquainted!

But wild koalas are highly sensitive to human handling, which can generate sub-lethal stress through the stress hormone, cortisol.

Without question, the koala’s nose is fascinating and a marvel of evolution, but no matter how strong the temptation to touch it, please leave those koalas in peace!The Conversation

Ben Moore, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University and Edward Narayan, Senior Lecturer in Animal Science, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A report claims koalas are ‘functionally extinct’ – but what does that mean?



Koalas are facing serious threats in the wild.
Mathias Appel/Flickr

Christine Adams-Hosking, The University of Queensland

Today the Australian Koala Foundation announced they believe “there are no more than 80,000 koalas in Australia”, making the species “functionally extinct”.

While this number is dramatically lower than the most recent academic estimates, there’s no doubt koala numbers in many places are in steep decline.

It’s hard to say exactly how many koalas are still remaining in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, but they are highly vulnerable to threats including deforestation, disease and the effects of climate change.

Once a koala population falls below a critical point it can no longer produce the next generation, leading to extinction.




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What does ‘functionally extinct’ mean?

The term “functionally extinct” can describe a few perilous situations. In one case, it can refer to a species whose population has declined to the point where it can no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem. For example, it has been used to describe dingoes in places where they have become so reduced they have a negligible influence on the species they prey on.

Dingoes are top predators, and therefore can play a significant role in some ecosystems. Our innocuous, leaf-eating koala cannot be considered a top predator.

For millions of years koalas have been a key part of the health of our eucalyptus forests by eating upper leaves, and on the forest floor, their droppings contribute to important nutrient recycling. Their known fossil records date back approximately 30 million years so they may have once been a food source for megafauna carnivores.

Functionally extinct can also describe a population that is no longer viable. For example in Southport, Queensland, native oyster reef beds are functionally extinct because more than 99% of the habitat has been lost and there are no individuals left to reproduce.

Finally, functionally extinct can refer to a small population that, although still breeding, is suffering from inbreeding that can threaten its future viability. We know that at least some koala populations in urban areas are suffering in this way, and genetic studies on the Koala Coast, located 20kms south-east of Brisbane, show that the population is suffering from reduced genetic variation. In South East Queensland, koalas in some areas have experienced catastrophic declines




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We also know that koala populations in some inland regions of Queensland and New South Wales are affected by climate extremes such as severe droughts and heatwaves and have declined by as much as 80%.

Exhaustive multi-disciplinary koala research continues apace in an effort to find ways of protecting wild koala populations and ensuring that they remain viable now and into the future. Habitat loss, population dynamics, genetics, disease, diet and climate change are some key areas being studied.

How many koalas are there?

Koala researchers are often asked “how many koalas are in the wild?” It’s a hard question to answer. Koalas are not stationary, are patchily distributed throughout an extremely wide range encompassing urban and rural areas in four states and one territory, and are usually difficult to see.

To determine whether each population of koalas scattered across eastern Australia is functionally extinct would require a gargantuan effort.

Koalas are a key part of eucalyptus forests’ health.
Dave Hunt/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In 2016, in an attempt to determine population trends for the koala within the four states, a panel of 15 koala experts used a structured, four-step question format to estimate bioregional population sizes of koalas, and changes in those sizes.

The estimated percentage of koala population loss in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia was 53%, 26%, 14% and 3%, respectively. The estimated total number of koalas for Australia was 329,000 (within a range of 144,000–605,000), with an estimated average decline of 24% over the past three generations and the next three generations.

Since May 2012, koalas have been listed as vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory because populations in these regions have declined significantly or are at risk of doing so.

In the southern states of Victoria and South Australia, koala populations vary widely from abundant to low or locally extinct. Although not currently listed as vulnerable, these koalas are also experiencing a range of serious threats, including low genetic diversity.

To date, the present “vulnerable” listing has not achieved any known positive results for koala populations in Queensland and New South Wales. In fact, recent research invariably shows the opposite.




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This is because the key threats to koalas remain, and are mostly increasing. The primary threat is habitat loss. Koala habitat (primarily eucalyptus woodlands and forests) continues to rapidly diminish, and unless it is protected, restored, and expanded, we will indeed see wild koala populations become “functionally extinct”. We know what comes after that.The Conversation

Christine Adams-Hosking, Honorary Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Koalas can learn to live the city life if we give them the trees and safe spaces they need


Edward Narayan, Western Sydney University

Australia is one of the world’s most highly urbanised nations – 90% of Australians live in cities and towns, with development concentrated along the coast. This poses a major threat to native wildlife such as the koala, which can easily fall victim to urban development as our cities grow. Huge infrastructure projects are planned for Australian cities in the coming few years.

The need to house more people – the Australian population is projected to increase to as much as 49.2 million by 2066 – is driving ever more urban development, much of it concentrated in our biggest cities on the east coast. This is bad news for the koala population, unless the species’ needs are considered as part of planning approvals and the creation of urban green spaces. The good news is that koalas can learn to live the “green city life” as long as they are provided with enough suitable gum trees in urban green spaces.




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Indeed, our newly published research, which analysed stress levels in wild koalas according to their habitat, reveals that koalas are the most stressed in rural and rural-urban fringe zones. This appears to be due to factors such as large bushfires, heatwave events, dog attacks, vehicle collision and human-led reduction of prime eucalyptus habitats. Koalas living in urban landscapes are less stressed as long as the city includes suitable green habitats.

If there are suitable trees, koalas can learn to live among us – this one is next to a school in South Australia.
Vince Brophy/Shutterstock

In other words, wild animals including the koala can adapt to co-exist with human populations. Their ability to do so depends on us giving them the space, time and freedom to make that adaptation. This means ensuring they can carry out, without undue pressures, the biological and physiological functions on which their survival depends.

Wildlife species that lack access to suitable green habitats in cities are at higher risk of death and local extinction. Having to move between fragmented patches of habitat increases the risks. Land clearing and habitat destruction for infrastructure projects and other urban development are compounding the major threats to koalas, such as being hit by vehicles or attacked by dogs.




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How does human pressure cause stress in wildlife?

Animals cope with stressful situations in their lives through very basic life-history adjustments and ecological mechanisms. These include changes in physiology and behaviour in response to stresses in their environment.

We can help make the environment more suitable for wildlife species by ensuring their basic needs for food, water and shelter are met. If animals are deprived of any of these necessities, they will show signs of stress.

So by subjecting wildlife to extrinsic stressors such as habitat clearance, climate change and pollution we are making it even more difficult for these animals to manage stress in their daily lives.

Basically any unwanted change to an animal’s environment that prevents it from performing its basic life-history functions, such as foraging and social behaviour, will cause stress.

So what can be done?

The koalas are telling us it’s a major problem when urban design is not green enough. Innovative solutions are needed!

Cities can do much more for wildlife conservation. Creating safe green spaces for wildlife is critical. Not just koalas but other wildlife such as birds, small mammals, reptiles and frogs can benefit immensely from urban green spaces.

Even in suburbs with plenty of green space, problems still arise because urban planning typically designs this space around access for human recreation and not for the wildlife that was living there before the housing development moved in.

Urban planning should always incorporate the planning of green spaces that are safe for wildlife. Providing wildlife crossings is part of the solution. Another important element is educational programs to alert drivers to the need to look out for koalas.




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Measures like this can minimise impacts on wildlife that faces the many challenges of adjusting to city life.The Conversation

Edward Narayan, Senior Lecturer in Animal Science, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Koalas sniff out juicy leaves and break down eucalypt toxins – it’s in their genome


File 20180702 116152 1ux1z28.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Koalas spend a large part of the day sleeping – while their digestive enzymes get to work.
emmanueleragne/flickr , CC BY

Jenny Graves, La Trobe University

News is out today that the entire genome of the koala has been sequenced. This means we now have a complete read-out of the genes and other DNA sequences of this iconic marsupial mammal.

Knowing the full set of koala genes deepens our knowledge of koalas (and other Australian mammals) in many ways. Now we can understand how koalas manage to survive on such a toxic diet of gum leaves. Now we can follow the fortunes of historic koala populations and make good decisions about how to keep remaining koala populations healthy. Now we have a new point of comparison that we can use to understand how the mammal genome evolved.

This is important for science – but also economically. Koalas are incredibly well loved, with their baby-faces, shiny noses and big fluffy ears. Millions of visitors line up each year to spot them snoozing in gum trees – indeed, they are worth A$3.2 billion in tourist dollars.

Koalas are listed as a vulnerable species in some parts of Australia, affected by habitat destruction, disease and other stresses.




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We now have a high quality read-out of the koala genome. Video thanks to the Australian Academy of Science.

The koala genome

Koala DNA was sequenced with new “long-read” technology that delivers a complete and well-assembled genome. As far as quality of the read-out goes, it’s as good as the human genome, with continuous sequences now known over huge (almost chromosome-scale) spans. New technology enabled us to achieve this at a tiny fraction of the $2.7 billion it cost to sequence the first human.

The obtained koala genome sequence is much better quality than that for other sequenced marsupials – opossum, tammar wallaby and Tasmanian devil – and will really help us to assemble and compare genomes from all marsupials.

The koala has a genome a bit bigger than that of humans, with 3.5 billion DNA base-pairs. This amounts to about a metre of DNA, which is divided and packaged into eight large bits that we recognise as chromosomes.




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An animal has a set of chromosomes from mother and a set from father, so koalas have 16 large chromosomes in each cell. This is similar to other marsupials; as a group they seem to have a low chromosome number and a very stable genome arrangement. In placental mammals the number and arrangement of chromosomes is much more varied: for example, humans have 46, and rhinos 82 chromosomes.

The source of junk DNA

New findings from the koala genome help us to understand how mammal genomes evolved and how they work.

A lot (sometimes more than 50%) of animal genomes seem to be “junk DNA” – these are repeated sequences, many deriving from ancient viral infections. The koala, uniquely, seems to be in the middle of one such invasion. A DNA sequence derived from a retrovirus is present in different numbers and sites in different koala populations, testifying to its recent movement and amplification. This helps us learn how the genomes of humans and other mammals got so puffed up with junk DNA.

Like the human genome, the koala genome contains about 26,000 genes. These are stretches of DNA that code for or control proteins. Indeed, most koala genes are present in humans and other mammals – these are the same genes doing the same basic jobs in different animals.

So why is it important to sequence different species if their genomes are so similar? Well, it’s the special genes that have evolved to adapt the koala to its unique lifestyle that give us new and valuable information.




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How to survive on gum leaves

How koalas exist on an exclusive low-calorie and toxin-laced diet of eucalyptus leaves has been somewhat of a science mystery.

The genome provides answers. The koala has multiplied a family of genes that code for enzymes (members of the cytochrome P450 family) that break down the toxins of gum leaves. Evolution of these additional gene copies has enabled the koala to outstrip its competition, even at the cost of sleeping most of the day.

The genome also gives us clues to the koala’s picky eating habits. The koala genome contains many additional copies of genes that enable them to taste and avoid bitter flavours and even to “smell” water and choose juicy leaves (they don’t drink water).

Koalas have 16 chromosomes per cell.
chrisfithall/flickr, CC BY

The genome also gives us new information about how koalas develop. Like other marsupials, they are born about the size of a pea, and complete most of their growth and differentiation in the pouch. Developing koalas are nurtured by milk with a complex composition that changes with the stage of development.




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Saving an iconic Australian

Managing koala populations is very fraught, and there has long been a need for a holistic, scientifically-grounded approach to koala conservation.

Today’s koalas are the “last stand” of the marsupial family Phascolarctidae – and the koala genome contains new information about this evolutionary history. It also tells us that koala populations peaked about 100,000 years ago, then plunged to about 10% of their numbers 30-40,000 years ago, at the same time that the megafauna became extinct. This population was fairly stable until European settlement, when it plunged again to its present numbers (about 300,000).

Koalas once occupied a swathe of timbered habitat from Queensland to South Australia; now, only fragmented populations survive in the south. These are intensively managed, and small numbers of koalas are translocated to other sites, producing dangerously inbred populations. Bizarrely, one of the greatest problems is overbreeding in isolated populations – for example, on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island – which leads to animals eating themselves out of house and home.

The enemies of koalas in the north are habitat destruction and fragmentation by urbanisation and climate change.




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The koala genome paper reports sequence comparisons of different populations and identifies barriers to gene flow. With the information from the koala genome, we can now monitor genetic diversity in the surviving populations, and maximise gene flow between connected populations.

Koalas are the sole surviving member of the Phascolarctidae marsupial family group.
Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash, CC BY

Maintaining genetic diversity is important because different animals can mount different responses to environmental threats and diseases such as chlamydia, a bacteria that affects koala reproduction and eye health.

The koala genome provides us with information about the immune genes of the koala, and the changes in activity of these genes in infected animals. This will help us understand the different responses of animals, vital for developing vaccines and treatments.

The koala genome also identifies powerful anti-bacterials in milk that protect the baby koala from disease – and may provide humans with the next generation of antibiotics.

So sequencing the koala genome is good for science and good for koalas, an iconic species at the top of the tree for conservation efforts.


The Conversation


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Jenny Graves, Distinguished Professor of Genetics, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Drop, bears: chronic stress and habitat loss are flooring koalas


File 20171023 13961 13qa7bq.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Koalas are stressed out by a range of pressures, from habitat loss to dog attacks.
Edward Narayan, Author provided

Edward Narayan, Western Sydney University

Koalas are under a lot of stress. Heatwaves, land clearing and even noise pollution are all taking a toll.

Each year, hundreds of koalas are taken to veterinary clinics after being rescued from roadsides or beneath trees, and the incidences increase during the summer months.

Chronic and ongoing pressures such as habitat destruction are overwhelming koalas’ ability to cope with stress. Koalas are nationally listed as vulnerable, so it’s important to understand how they are affected by threats that can reduce life expectancy and their ability to cope with problems.

What is stress?

The term “stress” was coined in 1936 by Hans Sayle after experiments on rats. Sayle demonstrated that the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidney and produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, can swell in response to any noxious stimulus or due to pathological state. In addition, there are changes in the tissues and glands involved in the basic functioning of the immune system, reproduction and growth.


Read more: What happens to your body when you’re stressed


The short-term stress response is not necessarily bad, because it prepares the body to cope with external challenges. For example, tadpoles that are exposed to dragonfly nymphs grow larger and have bigger tail fins than other tadpoles.

However, chronic stress over a long time can seriously affect an animal’s health (humans included) and survival rates.

How do koalas respond to stress?

Koalas release the stress hormone cortisol in response to any unpleasant stimulus like being handled by humans (oddly, males are much more stressed by handling than females, unless the females are lactating).

Koalas have biological feedback mechanisms that can regulate the amount of cortisol they produce, so they can carry on with their day-to-day routine. However, if koalas are continuously stressed by something large and permanent, such as land clearing of their territory, it’s difficult for them to relax from a stressed state.

When this happens, the body undergoes a barrage of sub-lethal chemical changes. The resulting chronic stress can negatively affect the animals’ reproductive hormones and immune system function.

Koalas, like all animals that call Australia home, have basic physiological and behavioural adaptations needed for life in Australia’s often extreme environment. But human-induced threats such as land clearing continue to create ecological imbalances, and chronic stress makes it very difficult for koalas to cope with environmental change.

How much stress can a koala bear?

As my review of the research shows, the most common sources of stress for koalas are heat stress, car impacts and dog attacks. Foetal development of koalas could also be impacted by maternal stress due to lack of adequate food from gum trees in drought periods.

Urban and fringe zones (areas between rural and urban zones) are particularly stressful for koalas, with added pressures like noise pollution and a higher chance of land clearing.

All of these factors create a continual strain on koala physiology. The sight of a koala dead by the road is the distressing culmination of multiple, complex and dynamic environmental influences.

Clinical research has shown that wild koalas are suffering from chronic stress. Koalas are often rescued with signs of trauma, caused by car accidents, burns or dog attacks, which is very difficult to handle in veterinary clinics.

Koalas are a living treasure, the only extant representative of the family Phascolarctidae. They live exclusively on Australia’s east coast, but are considered rare in New South Wales and South Australia.

There are now numerous local dedicated koala conservation centres aimed at safeguarding their habitat and educating the public. Koalas also help increase public awareness of conservation among both young people and adults.

But more research is needed in studying how they respond to the stresses of life in a human-dominated landscape. Techniques such as non-invasive hormone monitoring technology can be used to provide a rapid and reliable index of how our koalas are being affected by stress.

The ConversationSimply put, if land clearing is not reduced now we will continue to add invisible stress on koalas. Our children may one day be more likely to see a koala dead on the road than one happily cuddling their gum tree.

Edward Narayan, Senior Lecturer in Animal Science; Stress and Animal Welfare Biologist, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.