Infectious Cancers in Tasmanian Devils


Thursday, February 20, 2020, 6:00pm


Geological Lecture Hall, 24 Oxford Street, Cambridge

Tasmanian Devil.

Free Public Lecture

Mark Margres, Sarah and Daniel Hrdy Fellow in Conservation Biology, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

The Tasmanian devil is the world’s largest living carnivorous marsupial. This species was once abundant in Australia, but today is only found on the island of Tasmania, where it is at risk of extinction due to two rare, contagious cancers. Mark Margres will discuss how this species is adapting in response to these diseases, whether there is any hope for the Tasmanian devil to avoid extinction, and what can be learned about human cancers from studying the disease in other animal species.

Presented in collaboration with the Microbial Sciences Initiative

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About the Speaker

Mark J. Margres is an evolutionary biologist who focuses on adaptation and evolutionary genetics. He received his BA from Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas and his PhD from Florida State University. His research addresses fundamental questions related to adaptation dynamics in two co-evolving systems: Tasmanian devils and devil facial tumor disease, and venomous snakes and their prey. Mark’s cancer work largely focuses on the genetic basis of adaptation in Tasmanian devils in response to devil facial tumor disease, a species-specific transmissible cancer that threatens the Tasmanian devil with extinction. His work on rattlesnake venoms explores how migration and selection interact to lead to local adaptation, particularly in island populations. Mark’s research integrates field work, next-generation sequencing, and bioinformatics to connect genotype, phenotype, and ecology. His work has been published in top journals including Genetics, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Molecular Ecology, and Genome Biology and Evolution. As the Hrdy Fellow at Harvard University, Mark is focusing on the Tasmanian devil-cancer system to determine how multiple mutations in a single tumor affect disease fitness and transmission. He hopes his work will ultimately lead to more robust predictions regarding cancer and pathogen evolution, which have direct biomedical and conservation implications. Emerging infectious diseases are now the sixth leading cause of species’ declines, and such diseases are expected to only increase as habitat alterations bring species whose niches do not normally overlap into close contact. Thus, predicting the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases has become an urgent priority for conservation and disease management, especially for species threatened with extinction by disease, including the Tasmanian devil.


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