Finding the genes needed to save Australian mammals

When planning to protect threatened species, it’s helpful to consider how they’ve survived and adapted over the millions of years leading up to this point.

That’s the theory behind Bioplatforms Australia’s Oz Mammal Genomics (OMG) Framework Data Initiative to build an evolutionary “family tree” for all Australian mammals. The result could make waves in conservation efforts across Australia. 

OMG is a consortium of researchers from more than 30 institutions and agencies across Australia, with partnerships in Asia, Europe and America, that is sequencing genomic information on Australian mammals to a level higher than anything we’ve seen before.

“A lot of work was being disparately done by different groups. Professor Craig Moritz, Scientific Lead of the consortium, saw an opportunity to bring that together and place it under the banner of one large project,” says Matthew Phillips, Associate Professor in Evolutionary Biology at Brisbane-based university QUT and a participant in the consortium from its first meetings.

Phillips is involved in understanding the evolution of Australasian mammals: that is, using genomic information to produce a complete prehistoric timeline of Australasian mammals, showing when a species first appeared, who its relatives were, and any hotspots of diversification throughout marsupial history that resulted in new species or rapid evolution. 

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QUT’s Matthew Phillips: “At the moment we don’t have good information on which individuals to bring from where.”

QUT Science and Engineering Faculty.

Using this timeline, experts will be able to deduce when herbivory first evolved in marsupials, for example, or when bandicoots first evolved and diversified and what circumstances might have helped them along.

Perhaps most importantly, the consortium wants to use this data to figure out how to strengthen the remaining populations of threatened species, by identifying the genetic diversity needed to give them the boost they need to survive.

For example, if a population of threatened bandicoots needs a new genetic line to breed with, a conservationist might bring in individuals from somewhere else in Australia to mix things up. 

“At the moment we don’t have good information on which individuals to bring from where – basically, who to breed with whom,” says Phillips. “This is the kind of project that can give you that information.”

Using the evolutionary map, experts will in some cases be able to figure out exactly which gene variants will best arm a population against the challenges it’s likely to face. 

“For example, there might be certain genes that promote temperature tolerance,” Phillips says. “So if a species has good diversity within that, it’s potentially got more evolutionary flexibility under climate change.”

“Perhaps more important is being able to preserve populations that include a diversity of immune genes, so they can deal with a variety of diseases.”

The consortium selected a list of 11 threatened species to focus on, each chosen for the likelihood that this project could benefit their conservation outcomes. 

The list includes the golden bandicoot, Christmas Island flying-fox, Shark Bay mouse and black-footed rock wallaby, among others. Beyond assisting specific species, however, the project aims to enhance training and resources for conservationists and researchers everywhere.

“The better we understand the evolutionary processes that have maintained and promoted that biodiversity in the first place, the better we can conserve it,” Phillips says.

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