Transmissible cancer influences immune gene expression in an endangered marsupial, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)

Authors: Nynke Raven, Marcel Klaassen, Thomas Madsen, Frédéric Thomas, Rodrigo K. Hamede, Beata Ujvari

Source: Molecular Ecology (FEB 2022)


Understanding the effects of wildlife diseases on populations requires insight into local environmental conditions, host defence mechanisms, host life-history trade-offs, pathogen population dynamics, and their interactions. The survival of Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) is challenged by a novel, fitness limiting pathogen, Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), a clonally transmissible, contagious cancer.

In order to understand the devils’ capacity to respond to DFTD, it is crucial to gain information on factors influencing the devils’ immune system. By using RT-qPCR, we investigated how DFTD infection in association with intrinsic (sex and age) and environmental (season) factors influences the expression of 10 immune genes in Tasmanian devil blood.

Our study showed that the expression of immune genes (both innate and adaptive) differed across seasons, a pattern that was altered when infected with DFTD. The expression of immunogbulins IgE and IgM:IgG showed downregulation in colder months in DFTD infected animals.

We also observed strong positive association between the expression of an innate immune gene, CD16, and DFTD infection. Our results demonstrate that sampling across seasons, age groups and environmental conditions are beneficial when deciphering the complex ecoevolutionary interactions of not only conventional host-parasite systems, but also of host and diseases with high mortality rates, such as transmissible cancers.