The genome of the numbat, a critically endangered Australian insectivorous marsupial, has been sequenced by two teams of genetic experts

The genome of the numbat, a critically endangered Australian insectivorous marsupial, has been sequenced by two teams of genetic experts

The genome of the numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus), a critically endangered Australian insectivorous marsupial and the last living member of the Myrmecobiidae family, has been sequenced by two teams of genetic experts.

Scientists and conservationists will be able to make more informed decisions about how to protect the species in the future thanks to the genomic map.

The numbat is a brightly colored marsupial that can grow to be 35 to 45 cm (14-18 inches) long (including the tail) and weigh up to 700 g.

The numbat, also known as the noombat or walpurti, is the only termitivorous marsupial, eating up to 20,000 termites every day.

The numbat’s keen vision, powerful front claws, and keen sense of smell enable it to identify and excavate termite mounds and sub-surface structures.

Its extremely long tongue allow the numbat to then extract termites from within the mounds.

The numbat is also unique amongst marsupials as it is the only diurnal and marsupial.

In addition, it has a variety of important adaptations to an arid environment including regular torpor.

Historically, numbats inhabited the arid and semi-arid regions of Australia. However, populations have declined by more than 99% due to habitat degradation and predation.

It is estimated there are only 1,000 individuals remaining in Western Australia.

As such, the numbat is currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and Vulnerable under the Australian Federal Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

“The numbat was on the verge of extinction during the 20th century, but extensive conservation efforts as well as government and community intervention have led to a gradually increasing population,” said Dr. Parwinder Kaur, a researcher in the School of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Western Australia.

“With 1,000 numbats left in the wild, the genomic resource will open new doors for numbat conservation efforts as well as for our scientists on the front line, fighting the very genetic diseases threatening to exterminate numbats.”

To sequence the numbat genome, the researchers used samples from female and male individuals housed at Perth Zoo.

“Perth Zoo is the only zoological institution in the world to breed numbats and since 1993, more than 220 have been bred at the zoo — and released into the wild,” said Dr. Kaur, who is a member of the numbat genome project, a collaboration between the University of Western Australia, DNA Zoo, Aiden Lab at Baylor College of Medicine, the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, the Australian Government and the Government of Western Australia.

The scientists then identified a total of 21,465 protein-coding genes in the 3.42-billion-base genome of the numbat.

“To investigate adaptation to the numbat’s termitivorous diet and arid/semi-arid range, we interrogated the most highly expressed transcripts within the tongue and manually annotated taste, vomeronasal and aquaporin gene families,” said University of Sydney’s Dr. Emma Peel and her colleagues from the University of Sydney, Hokkaido University, and Japan Monkey Centre.

“Antimicrobial proteins and proteins involved in digestion were highly expressed in the tongue, as expected.”

“Similarly, umami taste receptors were also expressed in the tongue, however sweet taste receptors were not expressed in this tissue.”

“This pattern of taste receptor expression, combined with the putative contraction of the bitter taste receptor gene repertoire in the numbat genome, may indicate a potential evolutionary adaptation to their specialized termitivorous diet.”

“Vomeronasal and aquaporin gene repertoires were similar to other marsupials and have not undergone expansion or contraction.”

“The mapping of the numbat genome is a wonderful scientific achievement which will play a crucial role in our conservation efforts,” said Reece Whitby, the WA Minister for Environment and Climate Action.

“Western Australia is a biodiversity hotspot with some of the most unique wildlife in the world.”

“This wildlife needs to be understood and protected, and the partnership between Perth Zoo and DNA Zoo will help to achieve this.”

“A big thank you to everyone involved and I look forward to seeing more exciting results.”


Emma Peel et al. Genome assembly of the numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus), the only termitivorous marsupial. bioRxiv, published online February 14, 2022; doi: 10.1101/2022.02.13.480287

This article by Natali Anderson was first published by Sci-News on 15 February 2022. Lead Image: The numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus). Image credit: Seashalia Gibb.

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