Transmissible cancer and longitudinal telomere dynamics in Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii)

Authors: Thomas Madsen, Marcel Klaassen, Nynke Raven, Antoine M. Dujon, Geordie Jennings, Frédéric Thomas, Rodrigo Hamede, Beata Ujvari

Source: Molecular Ecology (Oct 2022)


A plethora of intrinsic and environmental factors have been shown to influence the length of telomeres, the protector of chromosome ends. Despite the growing interest in infection–telomere interactions, there is very limited knowledge on how transmissible cancers influence telomere maintenance. An emblematic example of transmissible cancer occurs in the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), whose populations have been dramatically reduced by infectious cancer cells.

To investigate associations between telomere dynamics and the transmissible cancer, we used longitudinal data from a Tasmanian devil population that has been exposed to the disease for over 15 years. We detected substantial temporal variation in individual telomere length (TL), and a positive significant association between TL and age, as well as a marginally significant trend for devils with devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) having longer telomeres. A proportional hazard analysis yielded no significant effect of TL on the development of DFTD.

Like previous studies, we show the complexity that TL dynamics may exhibit across the lifetime of organisms. Our work highlights the importance of long-term longitudinal sampling for understanding the effects of wildlife diseases on TL.