Science hope for Australia’s threatened koalas

The International Union for Conservation of Nature qualifies the koala’s protection status as ‘vulnerable.’ (AFP)
Updated 03 July 2018
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Science hope for Australia’s threatened koalas

  • Inbreeding was higher among koalas from Victoria and South Australia states than among their cousins from Queensland and New South Wales
  • The koala genome is bigger than the human genome, with about 20,000 genes

PARIS: Australia’s koalas, their very existence imperiled by disease, bushfires, car strikes, and dog attacks, face a more hopeful future thanks to scientists cracking its genetic code, a study said Tuesday.
A mammoth effort by more than 50 researchers in seven countries uncovered 26,558 koala genes, yielding vital DNA clues for vaccines against diseases such as sexually transmitted chlamydia, which blinds the cuddly critters and leaves them infertile.
“The genome has allowed us to understand the koala immune genes in detail for the first time,” said Rebecca Johnson of the Australian Museum Research Institute, a co-author of the study published in Nature Genetics.
“These genes (are) directly contributing to vaccines for koalas,” she said.
The DNA code should also boost koala breeding programs.
It revealed that inbreeding was higher among koalas from Victoria and South Australia states than among their cousins from Queensland and New South Wales.
The discovery “allows us to make recommendations for how to preserve the populations with high genetic diversity and how animals might be translocated to improve the diversity of inbred populations,” Johnson said.
From between 15 and 20 species some 30 to 40 million years ago, a single species of koala survives in Australia today — some 330,000 individuals in all, most living in protected areas.
As few as 43,000 may be left in the wild, down from an estimated 10 million koalas before Europeans began settling Down Under in around 1788.
Koala numbers were decimated partly by a thriving pelt trade from the 1870s to the late 1920s.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature qualifies the koala’s protection status as “vulnerable.”
Koalas are marsupials — mammals that raise their young in a tummy pouch. Born without an immune system, the koala joeys are heavily dependent on their mothers’ milk.
A key discovery resulting from the genome sequencing was the discovery of koala-specific milk proteins that may also have “powerful antibiotic properties... (that are) really effective against bacteria and fungi.”
“So we think one day we could develop antibiotics for humans and other animals straight out of the koala’s pouch,” the study’s co-author Katherine Belov of the University of Sydney said.
“And the implications for that are huge, because of course antibiotics resistance is on the rise and we are seeing more and more novel bacteria emerge that are resistant to all drugs on the market.”
Koalas’ unusual diet consists mainly of eucalyptus leaves, which would be toxic for most animals and are low in calories, meaning the fluffy “bears” have to eat a lot and rest often.
The new study identified genes responsible for liver detoxification that likely permitted koalas to become such dietary specialists, thus avoiding competition for food with other animals.
Unfortunately, their pickiness now adds to the survival pressure, with eucalyptus trees cleared for farmland or for urban construction.
Global warming, experts say, will further raise the risk of devastating forest fires and tree death.
The koala genome is bigger than the human genome, with about 20,000 genes.
It is the most complete genome yet sequenced for any marsupial, of which there are about 300 species, the researchers said.


EU adopts powers to respond to cyberattacks

Updated 17 May 2019
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EU adopts powers to respond to cyberattacks

  • The EU can now impose asset freezes and travel bans on individuals, firms and state bodies implicated in cyberattacks
  • Sanctions will be considered if a cyberattack is determined to have had a ‘significant impact’ on its target

BRUSSELS: The European Union on Friday adopted powers to punish those outside the bloc who launch cyberattacks that cripple hospitals and banks, sway elections and steal company secrets or funds.
EU ministers meeting in Brussels said the 28-nation group would now, for the first time, be able to impose asset freezes and travel bans on individuals, firms and state bodies implicated in such attacks.
“The Council (of EU countries) established a framework which allows the EU to impose targeted restrictive measures to deter and respond to cyberattacks,” it said in a statement.
It added that sanctions will be considered if a cyberattack is determined to have had a “significant impact” on its target.
The goal is to bolster the security of EU institutions, firms and individuals against what Britain called an increase in the “scale and severity” of cyberattacks globally.
“This is decisive action to deter future cyberattacks,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said after Britain and its EU partners drafted the measures.
“For too long now, hostile actors have been threatening the EU’s security through disrupting critical infrastructure, attempts to undermine democracy and stealing commercial secrets and money running to billions of euros,” Hunt said.
“Our message to governments, regimes and criminal gangs prepared to carry out cyberattacks is clear,” Britain’s top diplomat added.
“Together, the international community will take all necessary steps to uphold the rule of law and the rules based international system which keeps our societies safe.”
The British government has pledged to continue close cooperation with the EU after it leaves the bloc in line with the 2016 referendum.
Under the sanctions regime, diplomats said, the 28 EU countries would have to vote unanimously to impose sanctions after meeting a legal threshold of significant impact.
For example, countries would look at the scope and severity of disruption to economic and other activities, essential services, critical state functions, public order or public safety, diplomats said.
They would examine the number of people and EU countries affected and determine how much money, intellectual property and data have been stolen.
EU diplomats told reporters it could also cover the hacking of European elections by a third party or country. Elections for a new European Parliament take place May 23-26.
In line with US intelligence assessments, EU officials highlight in particular the threat of disinformation and election hacking from Russia.
EU countries would also study how much the perpetrator has gained through such action.
A Dutch diplomat told reporters that the powers amount to a “big step forward” toward building a more secure cyberspace.
European leaders in October had called for a regime to impose sanctions against cyberattacks.
US and European police said Thursday they have smashed a huge international cybercrime network that used Russian malware to steal 100 million dollars from tens of thousands of victims worldwide.
EU diplomats said the bloc will now start drawing up a blacklist for potential sanctions in cyberattack cases.
A number of powerful people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin appear on a blacklist of 164 Russians and Ukrainians that was established after Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Those blacklisted are under travel bans and asset freezes just like those that would be imposed on those implicated in cyberattacks.