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Contagious Cancer May Send Tasmanian Devil Into Extinction

Contagious Cancer May Send Tasmanian Devil Into Extinction

Written by Jaymi Heimbuch

Tasmanian Devils are facing a devilish disease that could wipe them out within decades. Called the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), the problem is a contagious cancer that causes huge lesions to form on the face. It has killed more than 80% of Tasmanian devils since 1996 and there has been an 84% decrease in devil sightings across Tasmania as of February 2011. The Tasmanian devil has been listed as an endangered species.

According to Save the Tasmanian Devil, DFTD is one of only three known cancers that can spread like a contagious disease. Tasmanian devils are biters, as anyone familiar with the species quickly learns, and the disease is spread from the many bites they deliver to one another. Once infected, a devil typically won’t live longer than six months and usually die of starvation because the tumors make it so difficult to eat.

Now, researchers are finding that the cancer is evolving in an unexpected way.

Live Science reports on Yahoo News that “rather than changing their genes, a new study finds, Tasmanian devil tumors are altering on an epigenetic level meaning the basic gene sequences stay the same, but the genes that get switched on and off are different. Some of the epigenetic variants may help the cancer spread more easily or evade the immune system, said study researcher Katherine Belov, an animal geneticist at the University of Sydney.”

In essence, what researchers though were tumors that cloned themselves, they’ve found that the cancer is actually evolving. It might mean that the cancer will get more aggressive, but it might also mean that the tumors will become benign. Save the Tasmanian Devil notes that a PhD student has been studying a population of devils where the cancer is not as deadly as in other populations.

“Although DFTD has spread through this population at the same rate that it is spreading elsewhere, abundance throughout the population has not plummeted, the full age structure is still intact and tumours appear to grow slower, regress and take longer to kill the animal.”

This could mean that indeed the cancer is evolving to be less aggressive, but whether or not there is still hope for the species remains to be seen.

This post was originally published by TreeHugger.


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10:12AM PST on Feb 22, 2013

I can only agree with many of the above comments and hope some of the Tassi devils will be treated separately and perhaps saved that way?!

6:12AM PST on Dec 18, 2012

Thank you TreeHugger, for Sharing this!

11:13AM PST on Dec 5, 2012

Can we do human experimentation to help save these creatures? If roles were reversed humans would certainly not hesitate to do experiments on animals to save the humans.

I seriously pray that these creatures do not end up facing extinction.......

11:10AM PST on Dec 5, 2012

Poor things

6:41AM PST on Dec 5, 2012

thanks for sharing, hope they can make it

12:48AM PST on Dec 5, 2012

devastating news.

3:54AM PST on Nov 28, 2012

I hope they find a cure before these animals are added to the lengthy list of Extinct Animals.

2:36PM PST on Nov 26, 2012

I'm sure that humans somehow caused this. Hopefully, we can find a way to save these innocent creatures before it is too late.

9:18AM PST on Nov 25, 2012

has there been a study conducted as to the cause of the rise and where it originated from?

8:46PM PST on Nov 24, 2012

There has to be something done there must be way to get rid of these cancers I pray they find a solution, because what would tasmania be without there devils!

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