From the cutest of its native animals to its most dangerous, Australian scientists are turning to DNA testing to solve two major predicaments: saving its koala bears and evading its crocodiles.
It may be the cuddliest of creatures, but the iconic koala bear has been ravaged by a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Chlamydia has spread fast in koalas, causing infertility and blindness. It can also lead to a condition called ‘dirty tail’: a painful inflammation of the urinary tract that often results in the animal’s death. Various therapies have been tested in the past but to no avail. Geneticists are now studying koala DNA in the hope that decoding the genome could lead to an effective vaccine for the STD.
The research forms part of a 5-year gene project in which a wealth of information has already been unearthed. For example, DNA tests have helped explain how koalas can survive solely on a diet of eucalyptus, which poisons most other creatures that consume it. Apparently, specific genes are switched on in the koala’s livers, which appear to be responsible for detoxifying the leaves. Their DNA also equips them with powerful senses of smell and taste that allow them to sniff out the leaves with the most water in them (at least 55% water content).
There is a great deal of anxiety about the iconic species’ survival because of their biological uniqueness, as a symbol for preservation and also because of their value as a tourist attraction (thought to be around A$1.5 billion). Experts say there are around 329,000 koalas alive in Australia today. But this is just a fraction of the population that existed in the middle of the 19th century when millions were killed for their fur. Koala bears have now been classed as ‘vulnerable’ by the Australian government.
Meanwhile, DNA testing is helping to detect another native Australian species, which could never be described as vulnerable. The hope is that a DNA test could be used to help reduce crocodile attacks in waterways, which are on the increase across northern Australia. The aim of the DNA project is not to replace existing crocodile management methods, but to provide an added layer of protection because of the sheer number of crocodiles that are out there.
“The idea is that it could be used as a complementary monitoring method”, said Alea Rose, a researcher at Charles Darwin University (CDU). “Where people that are going out spotting or trapping can also take a water sample, just to make sure that there’s definitely no crocodile there.”
There are more than 100,000 crocodiles across the Northern Territory, with potentially deadly consequences for tourists, anglers and residents who dare to venture into waterways that haven’t been given the all-clear by authorities.
“This is really a novel concept”, said the man overseeing the DNA project, CDU senior research fellow Hamish Campbell. “We are using this technique to see if we can alleviate human conflict and wildlife issues.”
Each year, rangers use spotlighting, harpooning and baited traps to remove around 300 crocodiles from Darwin Harbour and other waterways in the region. While the DNA testing method might sound farfetched, similar DNA environmental techniques have previously been used in the USA and Australia to confirm the presence of endangered wildlife in waterways.
The crocodile DNA project is still in its early stages, but the team has already developed a ‘probe’ that can differentiate between the DNA of saltwater and freshwater crocodiles. The aim now is to test the probe in controlled laboratory conditions. Once the team confirms the efficacy of the DNA probe, it will be trialed in the waterways.
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