Superstar of STEM’s genetic analysis helps protect koalas

On Australia Day, one of Science & Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM has unveiled a genetic analysis that could help save Australia’s iconic koalas.

Associate Professor Parwinder Kaur

Superstar of STEM and DNA Zoo Australia Director Associate Professor Parwinder Kaur, from the University of Western Australia’s School of Agriculture and Environment, said the analysis could help better understand how to protect the beloved iconic Australian species.

Associate Professor Kaur said genetic analysis would allow researchers for the first time to visualise the koala genome in three dimensions.

“This will help us understand koalas’ co-evolution with native eucalyptus species, how to develop stronger vaccines to prevent common diseases in the species and better ways of supporting their disrupted populations due to deadly bushfires,” Associate Professor Kaur said.

The koala is an iconic symbol of Australia, and is classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Because of their slow movements and eucalypt trees being highly flammable, koalas are particularly at-risk during bushfire season,” Associate Professor Kaur said.

“The situation is made worse by their natural instinct to seek refuge in higher branches, where the heat and flames from bushfires are most prevalent.”

The scientists from UWA partnered with Ranger Red’s Zoo & Conservation Park to obtain a genome sample of the biologically-unique mammal that thrives on highly toxic eucalyptus leaves which would kill most other animals.

“From the sample provided, we were able to sequence the koala’s complete DNA architecture and analyse the genetic data to produce a chromosome-length genome assembly to better understand the creature.”

Scientists at DNA Zoo believe recent technological advancements in genomics and DNA sequencing, which allow for high-speed and low-cost development of reference genomes, could play a critical role in conservation efforts globally.

“DNA Zoo Australia regularly partners with conservation bodies, zoos and many other collaborators across Australasia to collect, sequence and analyse genomes that could help save Australian species,” Associate Professor Kaur said.

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