You genuinely gotta feel for the koala. It lives exclusively on poisonous eucalyptus leaves, which limits its feeding alternatives. Habitat destruction has splintered the species into isolated populations. And as if that weren’t enough, koalas are suffering a chlamydia epidemic. All told, Australia’s iconic tree-dwelling marsupial is in serious trouble.
What appear to be disparate threats to the species are in fact all united by an invisible force: genes. It’s genes that allow the koala to dine on not just eucalyptus, but particular species of eucalyptus, and genes that partly determine how well an individual can oppose chlamydia. Inbreeding, of course, is responsible for new health challenges in the siloed populations. And it’s genes that are the key to saving the species.
To that end, researchers today announced that they have sequenced the koala genome, revealing how they might leverage the animal’s DNA to inform its conservation. And the koala is not alone: Sequencing technology is fundamentally changing how conservationists oppose to preserve at-risk species, from mountain lions to blunt-nosed leopard lizards.
To manage its eucalyptus-exclusive diet, the koala is equipped with special enzymes that break down the toxic molecules and expel them, which scientists suspect happens through urine. These enzymes are controlled by genes the koala has evolved over millions of years. “They’re super-detoxers compared to all other species that have had their genomes sequenced, ” says preservation geneticist Rebecca Johnson, result writer on the new study in Nature Genetics.