The mere mention of the Tasmanian Devil may bring up memories of this guy…

taz_2Blah-bphftt-blu-blah-blaa!

In reality, the actual Tasmanian Devil, or for you biology purists out there, Sarcophilus harrisii, looks like this…

Tasmanian devil(Just don’t call it honey badger)

These creatures have been having a rough time as of late. There’s been a rather nasty infection going around called Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease. As the name implies, it’s not caused by a bacterium or virus…but a cancer.

koala-whatI know…a cancer?!?

It turns out this disease can be transmitted through a bite, much like an infection. The tumour cells end up integrating into the normal tissue – like a graft – and then grow. They eventually cover the face and then spread throughout the body. It’s almost 100% fatal.

As you might expect, the situation has been rather grim, In a matter of 20 years, the population has dropped by around 80%. There has even the mention of extinction as a result of this particular illness. Needless to say…

crying-tazTaz Sad

But there may now be hope thanks to a recent discovery. It turns out some devils are immune to the cancer. You can read all about it here:
http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2016/160830/ncomms12684/full/ncomms12684.html

You might wonder how these animals survive and well, it is an interesting story. It turns out they have evolved to become immune to the effects of this particular cancer. Essentially, they have become…

supertazA Real Tasmanian Hero!

A closer examination of the immune animals revealed this sudden superpower was not quite as dramatic as one might think. This wasn’t some X-Men styled mutation leading to a new found power. Instead, there were seven small changes in the genetic code. They’re called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or…

snpSNPs (pronounced “snips”)

They occur quite often in every single living species. But most of the time, they have little to no effect on the way we live. They just happen to be there and make for some interesting genetic reading.

However, in this case, the SNPs happened at the right place and at the right time. In essence, it was a…

taz-miracleTasmanian (Devil) Miracle!

From a purely evolutionary perspective, the word miracle isn’t altogether far from the truth. Normally, a useful SNP may take dozens if not hundreds of generations to appear. But in this case, the changes – all seven of them – happened in less than two decades. Considering devils mate every two or so years, this rapid change for the genetic good is completely unexpected.

The appearance of these resistant animals means there is hope yet for the Tasmanian Devil. All that’s needed is a little…

taz-etteDevilish Breeding!

The SNPs can be transferred to a new generation making them capable of resisting the cancer. Over time, with enough resistance, the cancer may be incapable of spreading and eventually will disappear. At that point we can all take a deep sigh of relief knowing these animals are safe and sound.

wat-moreMy story isn’t done…

Now…
Imagine the Tasmanian Devil is a bacterium.
Change the cancer into an antibiotic.
Reduce the generation time from 2 years to 20 minutes.

Good? Now let me ask you this question:
“How long do you think it will take before that bacterium
gets the right SNPs to make the drug useless?”

taz-shoclLet’s just say you probably don’t want to know.

That’s why antibiotic resistance is such a concern….

 

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