They may look innocent, but about 50 percent of the koalas in Australia have chlamydia. The koala population is also threatened by a koala retrovirus called KoRV, which is similar to HIV. These diseases are no joke for these at-risk mammals — in the states of New South Wales and Queensland, about 40 percent of the koala population has died since 1990, and in some areas of Southwest Queensland koala populations have dropped by 80 percent from STDs and drought. That is why it is such good news that scientists seem to be coming up with some ideas as to why some koalas survive infection with chlamydia and KoRV and others do not.
Koalas in the state of Victoria do not seem to get chlamydia the same way koalas in other states do, so their genetics may hold the key to preserving koala populations. Scientists think they may have found the “holy grail” of the koala immune system, a gene called interferon gamma, which may prevent koalas from contracting these rampant and deadly diseases.
To verify that interferon gamma can help save koala populations, though, they’ll need to do a full mapping of the koala genome. Researchers have already identified about 12,000 koala genes, and they have about 8,000 to go. This will cost about $5.2 million. But look at this face and tell me that’s not a bargain.
Chlamydia Is Killing Koalas—Will Genetics Find a Cure?, Scientific American.
Get Grist in your inbox