Researchers at the Koala Genome Consortium, a team of 54 Australian and global scientists, said they sequenced more than 3.4 billion base pairs and more than 26,000 genes in the koala genome, which is slightly larger than the human one.
"The genetic blueprint has not only unearthed a wealth of data regarding the koala's unusual and highly specialised diet of eucalyptus leaves, but also provides important insights into their immune system, population diversity and the evolution of koalas".
A comprehensive koala study has highlighted the importance of genetic diversity for the marsupial's future.
Koalas are marsupials - mammals which raise their young in a tummy pouch.
Now an worldwide team of scientists has successfully sequenced the marsupial's whole genome and answered burning questions about the critter. But this iconic Australian marsupial is not just a pretty face.
Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute Professor Rebecca Johnson, who was joint leader of the koala study, said the reasons devils struggled was because they were not genetically diverse.
Publishing their findings in the journal Nature Genetics, a group of 54 scientists from seven countries successfully sequenced over 26,000 genes in the koala genome, assembling it with supercomputers.
The scale of the koala genome is on a par with its human counterpart, according to the scientists involved. These animals cope with poisonous plants thanks to genes encoding P450 proteins cytochrome.
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Experts believe there are around 329,000 koalas alive in Australia today, which is only a tiny percentage of the population that thrived in Australia during the 19th century. Researchers from the Earlham Institute in the United Kingdom noticed that the koala genome has a greater number and diversity of genes known to code for metabolic enzymes in the liver that help break down toxins like those found in eucalyptus leaves.
Another discovery was the characterization of the composition of koala milk. Born without an immune system, the koala joeys are heavily dependent on their mothers' milk.
"We are in a great position now to be developing better vaccines to treat them", said Katherine Belov, a professor of comparative genomics at the University of Sydney. "It also appears these proteins may have an antimicrobial role, showing activity against a range of bacterial and fungal species, including Chlamydia pecorum, the strain known to cause ocular and reproductive disease in koalas", Dr. Belov added.
Chlamydia has severely reduced koala populations in New South Wales and Queensland.
THEY are a true Aussie icon, but there's a lot more behind that cute koala munching on gum leaves - secrets that scientists didn't have a definitive picture of until now. "The genome absolutely brings a vaccine closer", lead author Prof Rebecca Johnson from the Australian Museum Research Institute told BBC News.
Wild koalas are now found in eucalyptus forest and woodlands across Eastern Australia (Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland), and have been translocated to other sites, such as south eastern South Australia and onto some islands. This allowed us to understand why marsupials bears can eat poisonous eucalyptus leaves without harm to themselves, as they chose the most appropriate diet and learned how to protect against infection of young and adult individuals. The Australian federal government lists koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales, and Australian Capital Territory as "vulnerable" under national environment law.
The research team thinks that the bitter genes allow the koalas to pick out leaves with the least amount of toxins, while the nasal receptor expansion might help them sniff out which leaves have a higher water content.