Tasmanian Devil Named 'Immortal Devil' Responsible for Deadly Cancer

A Tasmanian devil that lived about 15 years ago is the first known case of a rare genetic mutation of a contagious cancer that is decimating the Tasmanian devil population.

A team of scientists, who have been researching this event, have completed mapping the genome of the marsupial and have released their report concerning Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD).

The report, which was published in the Journal Cell, states that Tasmanian devils that are exposed to this cancer develop tumors which appear as a growth on the mouth.

They have also stated that the animal usually dies within three to five months after the lesion first appears, and in some areas has wiped nearly 90 percent of the local population of the devils.

With the new research scientists were able to map the genome, identifying when the mutation occurred and then traced it back to the host animal.

"We can now look for mutated pathways that might be responsible for the cancer's growth, which may offer potential targets or ideas for therapeutic interventions that could help the devils in the wild," explained Elizabeth Murchison, co-author and researcher at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

By using "genetic detective work" Murchison explained that the disease first appeared in a female more than 15 years ago.

"As far as we know, it was just a normal, wild Tasmanian devil but for some reason it developed this tumor that became transmissible." Since the cancer cells passed from one animal to another after that animal had died it was called the "immortal devil."

The spread of the contagious cancer was responsible for a sharp decline in the population of the devil causing the Australian government to put in the endangered list in 2009.

The Tasmanian devil, the world's largest marsupial carnivore, is only found in Tasmania. The condition of the species was so bad that the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program was established in 2005.