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How Norwich scientists are leading the fight to save the endangered koala

PUBLISHED: 15:17 11 July 2018 | UPDATED: 15:31 11 July 2018

Prof Katherine Belov, a member of Earlham Institutes scientific advisory board and Dr Rebecca Johnson, director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, with a snacking koala in the background at Featherdale Wildlife Park in Sydney. Picture: Richard North/University of Sydney.

Prof Katherine Belov, a member of Earlham Institutes scientific advisory board and Dr Rebecca Johnson, director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, with a snacking koala in the background at Featherdale Wildlife Park in Sydney. Picture: Richard North/University of Sydney.

University of Sydney

Strewth, mate! Scientists from Norwich have linked up with colleagues Down Under on work which could save one of the world’s favourite animals: the koala.

A wild Australian koala on French Island, Victoria. Picture: Greta FrankhamA wild Australian koala on French Island, Victoria. Picture: Greta Frankham

The researchers from the Earlham Institute at Norwich Research Park have been working with an Australian-led consortium to sequence the koala’s genome, and believe the work to understand its genetic building blocks could ensure the species’ long-term survival.

The koala is under threat from a host of dangers including habitat loss, chlamydia and the koala retrovirus, an immuno-deficiency that makes them more susceptible to disease.

Professor Rebecca Johnson, director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, which led the project, said: “The expert contributions from the teams at the Earlham Institute were a critical component of this study.

“I’m so proud of the work this great collaboration has produced and thrilled it will be assisting future koala conservation efforts.”

The 54 scientists from 29 institutions in seven countries sequenced more than 3.4 billion DNA base pairs and 26,000 genes in the koala genome - making it slightly larger than the human genome.

Unlocking the genomic sequence gives scientists unprecedented insights into the unique biology of the koala, they say, and could offer insight into previously unknown anti-microbial genes which could be used for human health.

Earlham Institute’s Director of Science, Professor Federica di Palma, added: “This important and very successful collaboration with our partners in Australia has paved the way for future research into decoding other marsupial genomes, which will have important insights into improving conservation and better understanding health.”

Prof Katherine Belov, professor of comparative genomics and member of Earlham Institute’s scientific advisory board said: “The genome provides a springboard for the conservation of this biologically unique species.”

The survival of koalas is threatened by a loss of genetic diversity since the arrival of Europeans, as well the daily threat of being run over by cars or attacked by dogs, even in areas where they are thriving, while the persistent menace of chlamydia causes blindness and infertility in the species.

Dr Wilfried Haerty, an evolutionary genomics expert at EI who worked on the study, said: “The completion of the genome of the koala is a milestone for the study of mammal genome evolution and towards the conservation of this emblematic but threatened species.

“It is the first high-quality genome for a marsupial species, a group of species that has long been overlooked.”

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