Telomere length is a susceptibility marker for Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease
Smith, LE and Jones, ME and Hamede, R and Risques, R and Patton, AH and Carter, PA and Storfer, A, Telomere length is a susceptibility marker for Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease, EcoHealth, 17 pp. 280-291. ISSN 1612-9202 (2020) [Refereed Article]
Telomeres protect chromosomes from degradation during cellular replication. In humans, it is well-documented that excessive telomere degradation is one mechanism by which cells can become cancerous. Increasing evidence from wildlife studies suggests that telomere length is positively correlated with survival and health and negatively correlated with disease infection intensity. The recently emerged devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) has led to dramatic and rapid population declines of the Tasmanian devil throughout its geographic range. Here, we tested the hypothesis that susceptibility to DFTD is negatively correlated with telomere length in devils across three populations with different infection histories. Our findings suggest telomere length is correlated with DFTD resistance in three ways. First, devils from a population with the slowest recorded increase in DFTD prevalence (West Pencil Pine) have significantly longer telomeres than those from two populations with rapid and exponential increases in prevalence (Freycinet and Narawantapu). Second, using extensive mark-recapture data obtained from a long-term demographic study, we found that individuals with relatively long telomeres tend to be infected at a significantly later age than those with shorter telomeres. Third, a hazard model showed devils with longer telomeres tended to become infected at a lower rate than those with shorter telomeres. This research provides a rare study of telomere length variation and its association with disease in a wildlife population. Our results suggest that telomere length may be a reliable marker of susceptibility to DFTD and assist with future management of this endangered species.