When you visit the magnificent heritage halls of the Australian Museum, you might not immediately think that our researchers work at the cutting edge of science. Well, not only have we been collecting, describing and researching animal specimens since the 1820s, we have also been applying the latest genetic technologies in our research since our genetics laboratory was established in 1988.

We can learn a lot about animals from observing their external features and their lifestyle and ecology, but we can obtain a mountain of extra information by analysing their genetics.

One of the most iconic animals in the world is the Koala, Phascolarctos cinereus.

Unfortunately, this treasured and quintessentially Australian species is suffering from habitat loss, predator attack and disease, and there are concerns that its genetic diversity is decreasing, placing its population health in danger.

We have been fortunate to receive a generous donation from the Australian Museum Foundation and financial support from Bioplatforms Australia (a federally funded network that builds Australian research capability through state-of-the-art scientific technology). This has allowed us to assemble a talented multidisciplinary team to sequence all of the approximately 20,000 genes in the Koala.

Our experts come from the Australian Museum, the Queensland University of Technology and the University of New South Wales. They include geneticists, molecular biologists, bioinformaticians (who organise and analyse biological data), mammalogists and vets.

In 2003 researchers in the United States assembled the human genome – that is, the entire set of human genetic information stored as DNA sequences, which are made up of both protein-coding genes and non-coding DNA. This work revealed many opportunities for new medical treatments, such as targeted gene therapy; discovered new markers for human genetic identity; and provided important knowledge about how humans evolved and diversified.

We hope to open up the same possibilities for the Koala. As well as sequencing the DNA of Koala genes, we are analysing the gene families that might be present in different organs from both males and females to see how different genes are expressed. This work will ultimately improve our knowledge of Koala biology and indicate how best to conserve the species.

We have started with the 20,000 genes, or transcriptome, and plan to move on to the genome, the several billion base pairs that make up the genes and the large amounts of additional DNA surrounding them.

At the Australian Museum we have Koala specimens dating back to the early 1870s. Once we have characterised the genes for the species, the ways in which we can analyse our collection are potentially endless. We will be able to look at disease resistance and susceptibility, and compare the genetic diversity of koalas collected over 100 years ago to that of their modern-day counterparts, which have been subject to the relatively new pressures of urbanisation.

Further, we will be able to use comparative genomics – comparing the genes of the Koala to those of other endangered Australian marsupials such as the Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii. By pinpointing genes that have critical functions, we will understand more about Koala evolution and can develop markers to directly assess the health of Koala populations.

Dr Rebecca Johnson
Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics
Australian Museum