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.


Saudi ICT sector holds key to growth, forum told

Updated 20 March 2019
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Saudi ICT sector holds key to growth, forum told

  • 5G will be used in 30% of big cities in Saudi Arabia by 2020
  • 90% of KSA has 4G technology coverage, including remote centers and villages

RIYADH: Information and communications technology (ICT) is one of the main drivers of development in today’s world, a Riyadh forum on “Digital Transformation for an Ambitious Country” has been told.

In his opening speech to the annual Communications and Information Technology Indicators Forum, Abdul Aziz Al-Ruwais, governor of the Communications and Information Technology Commission, said the ICT sector stimulated productivity, enhanced competitiveness and encouraged innovation.

On Wednesday, the Saudi minister of communications and information technology, Abdullah bin Amer Al-Sawaha, joined regional and global leaders in the ICT sector, telecom executives and government officials at the forum.

Al-Ruwais said that ICT has been used to “develop strategies and regulatory policies that can guarantee the availability of infrastructure, basic apparatus and services in all regions of the Kingdom.”

“In order to facilitate the mission of researchers, experts and those interested in telecommunication services indicators, the Communications and Information Technology Commission established an electronic platform that allows the user to have access to indicators and statistics related to the sector. This platform enables the user to view the indicators in the form of tables and detailed graphs,” he said.

Al-Ruwais said the commission has achieved 90 percent coverage of 4G technologies in the Kingdom, including remote centers and villages.

He said the authority has issued temporary licenses for fifth-generation networks, equipping 153 sites with 5G in nine cities. So far, 680 trials were conducted for 5G.

He said that ICT services achieved high indicators during the 2017 Hajj season, with local and international calls totaling 439 million through 16,000 base stations.

Mufarreh Nahari, director of Market Studies at CITC, said: “It is expected that by 2020 the experimental uses of 5G will be fully completed and they will be ready to launch the official 5G sim by then. By the end of 2020 we expect that 5G will be used in 30 percent of the big cities in Saudi Arabia.”

The past three years have seen an increase in internet usage. In 2018, two-thirds of Internet users in the Kingdom used the internet for more than four hours a day, said Nahari.

Ammar Al-Ansari, department head of Country Digital Acceleration at Cisco, said: “The agreements signed by the crown prince during his overseas visits led to the introduction of a number of artificial intelligence (AI) techniques, including virtual schools and smart classrooms.” 

Seven schools in Saudi have a live stream for teachers to connect with their students. They may be 250 km to 300 km apart, but an active learning session takes place between students and educators.

Al-Ansari displayed a video from a teacher in Jeddah giving lessons to students in the northern region via a smart board. AI was used to monitor and analyze students’ attention spans. 

The analysis will help educators update traditional teaching methods.