Discovery could help fight deadly koala virus

Virologists are one step closer to understanding a mysterious AIDS-like virus that differentially affects koala populations across state lines.

In their quest to stop the retrovirus known as KoRV, the researchers have uncovered another piece of the puzzle. It is a condition strongly associated with diseases that cause infertility and blindness.

“We learned that the retrovirus is much more prevalent in New South Wales and Queensland koalas compared to southern populations in Victoria and South Australia,” says Michaela Blyton, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. University of Queensland.

“Uncovering important patterns like this helps us learn how the disease develops, how it spreads, and how we can control the damage through antiviral drugs or koala breeding programs.”

Koala numbers have plummeted over the past decade due to widespread land clearing, climate change-induced weather events and disease.

Blyton’s research has already established the link between KoRV and chlamydia, cystitis and conjunctivitis, suggesting that the virus weakens the animal’s immune system.

In recent research, Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesKeith Chappell, associate professor in Blyton and the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, found that KoRV is only present in the genome of koalas in Queensland and NSW, while those in Victoria and South Australia appear to be free of multiple subvariants.

Blyton says this discovery strengthens the theory that the virus may be contributing to increased levels of disease in northern koala populations.

“Our previous studies have shown a definite link between KoRV and chlamydia in koalas, and these latest findings suggest that northern koalas should be treated very differently from southern koalas.

“It could mean that northern koala displacements are limited in the short term, so we won’t be introducing new virus subspecies into healthy populations.”

A final solution may be some distance away, Blyton says, but the latest findings are a big step toward eliminating the threat posed by the disease.

“Ultimately, we may see some form of anti-viral therapy, or at least improvements in koala breeding programs, but this is great news for now for a species that faces threats on multiple fronts.”

Source: University of Queensland

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