Program will provide insights into adaptive potential

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley and NSW Environment and EnergyMinister Matt Kean today announced funding for University of Sydney scientiststo sequence 400 koala genomes, to gain insights into the vulnerable species.

The University of Sydney is the recipient of more than $1 million to sequencehundreds of koala genomes across the eastern seaboard, to protect the speciesfrom disease and other threats.

Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley and NSW Minister forEnvironment and Energy Matt Kean announced the funding on campus today.

The Commonwealth is investing $348,450 for the genome sequences of koalas fromQueensland and Victoria along with a researcher to develop the genome libraryin 2021, while the NSW Government is contributing $674,000 to sequence genomesof koalas from NSW populations.

Amazon Web Services (AWS), through its Open Data Sponsorship Program, iscovering the costs of the storage and transfer of the data for the Universityof Sydney while they are participating in the program, so that it can beaccessed and analysed in the cloud by researchers around the world.

The project will genetically map a bank of samples already in hand and buildit over coming years through the national koala monitoring program and koalarecovery plan to be finalised this year. It builds on recent world-firstsequencing of the koala genome led by the University of Sydney and theAustralian Museum.

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Stephen Gartonthanked the Commonwealth and NSW environment ministers and Amazon for theirsupport that will enable the genomic sequencing of 400 koalas.

“This is a foundational dataset which will accelerate our understanding ofkoalas along the eastern seaboard – particularly in relation to the futureadaptive potential of this vulnerable species,” Professor Garton said.

Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said: “This is breakthroughscience that has never been applied to a native species population at thisscale, and it will play an important role in strengthening the koalapopulation.”

NSW Minister for Environment and Energy Matt Kean said: “We know the numberone threat to koalas is the loss and fragmentation of habitat, but koalas arealso at risk from threats such as disease and climate change; we need to pullout all stops to support thriving and resilient koala populations.”

Professor of Comparative Genomics Kathy Belov, who was part of the team thatsequenced the first koala genome in 2018, said historically koala populationshave moved freely across the east coast but as populations become fragmentedthe importance of maintaining genetic diversity increased.

“Levels of genetic diversity in a population determines how well thatpopulations can adapt and respond to change, whether that be disease,behaviour or climate,” explained Professor Belov, who is also Pro Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement).

Senior Research Manager of the University’s Australasian Wildlife GenomicsGroup in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Dr Carolyn Hogg, saidthe project would create a legacy for koala conservation, being a point intime across their range and enabling the measurement of future changes againstthis reference point.

“Genomes provide us with the ability to create a suite of downstreamapplications that can all be used for management of the species in the long-term,” Dr Hogg concluded.

About the sequencing:

Whole genome sequencing means researchers will be able to answer a range ofquestions pertaining to, for example, population size, future adaptivepotential, disease and reproduction. It will also allow them to understandwhether some populations have unique genetic variants. This is particularlyimportant for those populations under threat, ensuring that those uniquevariants are captured before they are lost; or for populations which haveunique variants and require investment in habitat restoration or expansion oftheir existing habitat.

Open data access will ensure that the genome data is available for anyresearchers as it is produced.

This is a foundational dataset, which will accelerate understanding of koalas– particularly in relation to climate change and the adaptive potential of thespecies.

Image: Ministers Sussan Ley and Matt Kean with Prof Kathy Belov and DrCarolyn Hogg at the wildlife genomics lab today. credit Prof Mathew Crowther.

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