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Storfer to study Tasmanian devils

PULLMAN – Later this month Andrew Storfer will travel Down Under for a year-long study of infectious diseases that threaten two species with extinction. An infectious facial cancer is
decimating Tasmanian devils and an infectious fungus is threatening frog populations in Australia and also worldwide. Storfer, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, has received a Fulbright Senior Scholar award to pursue his work on the two diseases. 

The Tasmanian devils are a famous part of Australia’s natural heritage and are known to viewers of nature documentaries all around the world. The devils live naturally with significant aggression toward one another, including biting each other on the face. The biting behavior sometimes transmits a facial tumor disease, a type of transmissible or contagious cancer. The cancer disease has wiped out nearly 90 percent of the devils in eastern Tasmania, is believed to be always fatal once it has begun.  

Generally, cancer is not a contagious condition, so this disease in the Tasmanian devils is of particular interest to biologists. The study of the transmition may even yield insights into human cancers.

Understanding infectious animal diseases is one of the most pressing problems in the life sciences today, and one with increasingly global implications. Human-animal interdependencies and interactions increase our need to better understand infectious disease in animals, both domestic and wild.

Storfer’s expertise is in genetics. He will use genetic studies to better predict how the facial-tumor disease has been spreading. The hope is to limit further spread and protect one population of the Tasmanian devils that so far has not been affected.

Storfer will divide his time in Australia between
the Tasmanian devils project and the genetics of frogs as they struggle to recover from major population losses due to a different infectious disease. In both Australia and other parts of the world, amphibian declines have been triggered by a fungus. In some cases, the disease has apparently been a factor in the extinction of species.    

“Once a complete mystery, we now know that population losses and extinctions in Queensland have most likely resulted from an emerging disease caused by a specific fungus,” Storfer said.

Storfer will focus on three groups of frogs that have had varied responses to infections by the fungus.

“My hope is that by studying the genetics of these two pathogens, one in frogs and one in Tasmanian devils, we can help with conservation efforts. We also aim for a better understanding of emerging wildlife diseases in general,” Storfer said.


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