Evolution in a transmissible cancer: a study of the chromosomal changes in devil facial tumour (DFT) as it spreads through the wild Tasmanian devil population
Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) are the largest extant marsupial carnivores. This species, now confined to Tasmania, is endangered from the emergence of a transmissible cancer, devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). In the present study, we use cytogenetic and molecular techniques to examine the stability of devil facial tumor (DFT) cell lines across time and space. This article describes disease progression from February 2004 to June 2011. We demonstrate evolutionary changes in the disease, which affects devils in different sites across Tasmania and over a period of several years, producing several chromosomal variants (strains) that are capable of transmission between devils. We describe the evolution of DFTs in the field and speculate on the possible impacts on the disease, including (1) development of less aggressive forms of the disease; (2) development of more aggressive forms of the disease; (3) development of forms capable of affecting closely related species of dasyurids (e.g., quolls); (4) extinction of the disease as it acquires additional deleterious mutations that affect either cell viability or transmissibility; and (5) co-evolution of the disease and the host. We also speculate about the future of the Tasmanian devil in the wild. We note that although DFTs are regarded as unstable by comparison with another much older transmissible cancer, canine transmissible venereal tumor (CTVT), the potential for development of less aggressive forms of DFTs or for development of resistance in devils is limited by devils’ small numbers, low genetic diversity, and restricted geographical distribution.