Studying eucalyptus leaves could hold the key to understanding why the existence of the iconic koala is under threat and also help secure its future, says a Danish-based researcher. Sharon Reich reports.
Over the last decade the population of these cute and cuddly Aussies has plummeted - leaving less than 40 thousand in the wild. Danish based researcher Elizabeth Neilson believes the drastic decline in Koalas may stem from an increase in droughts and fires in their habitat, resulting from climate change. You see Koalas have a highly restrictive diet and only eat a small variety of Eucalyptus. So Neilson is studying how they digest the plant, to see if chemistry of the leaves may have changed due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, having a negative impact on the Koala's health. (SOUNDBITE) (English) UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN POSTDOCTORAL FELLOW, ELIZABETH NEILSON, SAYING: "The issue of climate change is very pertinent. We don't know what's happening with the eucalyp chemistry, so what we'd like to do is have a look at individuals from different populations of koalas; so for example going from a more temperate zone to a more arid zone and having a look at the diet which these koalas are eating, look at the chemistry of those and also have a look at the microbiome of these individuals to see how much it varies when you go across a different temperature gradient." Neilson, from the University of Copenhagen's Center for Synthetic Biology, says there are significant gaps in our understanding of how koalas digest and detoxify their food. So she is using genome analysis, to identify the microflora and the specific proteins and mechanisms that help the Koala break down and digest the toxins in the plant. Professor Birger Lindberg Moller believes the research may have far reaching applications, such as identifying toxin and lignin-degrading enzymes that can be used in the pharmaceutical and biofuel industries. (SOUNDBITE) (English) HEAD OF CENTER FOR SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN, PROFESSOR BIRGER LINDBERG MØLLER, SAYING: "The koalas actually are able to degrade lignin, which is one of the components in plant material which is very very tough and reduces the output for bio-energy production. So we are doing something where we are telling people about what are the effects of climate changes. We want to avoid these dramatic sort of changes and we think the koala is a very, very good system because we know what it eats." By understanding how it's able to cope with the impacts of climate change, Neilson hopes to help preserve and boost the health of Australia's largest dwelling tree mammal.