The San Diego Zoo is participating in a gene sequencing study to learn about the behavior of retrovirus in koala populations.

The San Diego Zoo is participating in a gene sequencing study to learn about the behavior of retrovirus in koala populations.

Photo by Roland Kay-Smith on Unsplash

Retrovirus is a nemesis for koalas worldwide. The virus is associated with immunosuppression and cancer for the woolly tree-dwelling marsupials. However, the strange way retrovirus passes from one generation to the next is a mystery.

The San Diego Zoo is attempting to solve this conundrum and aid in koala conservation efforts, according to a Jan. 9 news release. The zoo is participating in a study sequencing the genomes (the complete set of DNA) of 100 koalas in North America.

Genomes are like maps. They contain all the instructions required for that animal to function, including growing, reacting to the environment and healing from disease. Gene sequencing can help scientists, veterinarians and conservationists target health problems within a population.

“Genomic sequencing of the North American koala population is a unique and impactful initiative,” Cora Singleton, a senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said in the release. “As a wildlife veterinarian, I have seen the devastating effects of (koala retrovirus)-related diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma.”

Almost all koalas in the world are infected with retroviruses, experts say. Some of the infections are nothing to worry about, while others are lethal.

The zoo will partner with Illumina, a genome sequencing technology company. Though other koala sequencing studies have been successful, very few of them have investigated how retrovirus is passed from one generation to the next, researchers say. This program aims to do that.

The results of the study will add to, and be integrated with, information from previous studies. Experts hope that adding to the existing pool of knowledge will improve the health of koalas in both zoos and natural habitats.

“Understanding (retrovirus) transmission and impacts on health will allow us to better evaluate the resilience of wild and zoo-based koala populations, and plan more effective and safe management actions to ensure the koala’s survival in the face of ongoing threats,” Damien Higgins, associate professor in pathobiology and wildlife health at the University of Sydney, said in the release.



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