A project undertaken at The University of Melbourne and supervised by Stephen Frankenberg
Introduced cane toads secrete a toxin that has had a devastating impact on many native Australian species that attempt to prey on them. One marsupial species, the northern quoll, was once abundant across northern Australia but is now threatened with extinction largely due to the cane toad. In other parts of the world where toxic toad species occur naturally, many predator species are able to consume them because they have evolved resistance over millions of years of co-existence. Modifications in either of two closely related genes (called ATP1A1 and ATP1A3) are known to provide this resistance, but Australian species do not have these modifications and are therefore susceptible to the toxin. These resistance modifications could evolve naturally over thousands of years, but only if extinction is avoided.
This project aims to develop the resources and technologies required to introduce these genetic modifications to the northern quoll and thus “speed up” evolution and safeguard its future. Gene editing for the purpose of conservation has not been performed in any animal species to date but has been performed using recently developed CRISPR technology to protect the American Chestnut tree from an introduced pathogenic fungus.