Koala genetic code cracked

A team of Australian and international scientists, including PM Prize for Science winner Professor Jenny Graves from La Trobe University, has successfully completed the full sequencing of the koala genome.

Hailed as the most complete marsupial genome sequence to date, the research has been rigorously peer-reviewed and published in the July edition of leading science journal Nature Genetics.

Professor Graves, who was part of a La Trobe team that pioneered koala genetics in the 1980s, said cracking the marsupial’s genetic code was a major breakthrough that provided scientists with new information on koalas that could help conservationists in their efforts to ensure the iconic Australian animal’s long-term survival.

“We could never have imagined then that one day we would have the entire koala genome sequence,” Professor Graves said.

“This opens up all sorts of new ways we can monitor the genetic health of koala populations.”

Professor Graves was part of a consortium of 54 scientists from 29 institution across seven countries who have worked tirelessly since 2013 to assemble more than 26,000 koala genes. They have completed the koala sequence to an accuracy of 95.1 per cent, comparable to the human genome.

“It has been a great team effort. All credit to Dr Rebecca Johnson from the Australian Museum Research Institute for her inspiring leadership and persistence,” Professor Graves said.

“I love it that many of the young researchers who contributed to this paper got their start in my lab or our Australian Research Council-funded Centre for Kangaroo Genomics.”

Dr Johnson - a La Trobe graduate with a PhD in molecular evolutionary genetics -  said the genetic blueprint had not only unearthed a wealth of data regarding the koala’s unusual and highly specialised diet of eucalyptus leaves, but also provided important insights into their immune system, population diversity and their evolution.

“The Koala Genome Consortium has been a monumental journey into understanding one of the world’s most charismatic and iconic mammals,” Dr Johnson said.

“Sequencing the koala genome was a pioneering venture with risks and uncertainties, but its success has started a revolution with conservation at its core.”

Professor Graves said one of the main discoveries of the consortium was an expansion of detoxification genes in koalas that allow them to survive a diet of highly toxic eucalyptus leaves.

The consortium also identified genes that play key roles in the koala’s defence against cancer and infectious disease.

Another important discovery was how koala milk provides antimicrobial properties that protect baby koalas – and might also be useful in our fight against human disease.

All of the sequence data from the project will be freely available to scientists around the world through public databases.

Media Contact Anastasia Salamastrakis 0428 195 464