Thursday 17 January 2019

Koalas' 'detox kit' allows them to eat poisonous eucalyptus - but it leaves habitat under threat

Koalas are at risk of destroying their own habitat
Koalas are at risk of destroying their own habitat

Francesca Marshall

Koalas are at risk of destroying their own habitat because they have a unique detox kit which allows them to eat poisonous eucalyptus.

Scientists have found that the marsupials are able to specialise in eating the poisonous plant because they have large numbers of genes active in the liver devoted to detoxification.

This has long given them the advantage of eating the plant which is avoided by their competitors, but it has also left them vulnerable to the loss of their forest habitat.

The discovery was made by a team of 54 researchers who put together a complete genetic blueprint and sequenced more than 3.4 billion "letters" making up the koala genetic code.

They were also able to identify more than 26,000 genes - stretches of DNA that provide the instructions for making proteins - and unravelled some of their functions.

The key discovery, published in the latest issue of the journal 'Nature - Genetics', showed that koala genes produce a range of cytochrome P450 enzymes that break down poisonous compounds. They are what enable the koala to live on a diet of highly toxic eucalyptus leaves, the scientists believe.

Team leader Professor Rebecca Johnson, director of the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney, said: "This probably helped them to find their niche to survive." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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