The Tasmanian devil is in trouble, according to the New York Times. The marsupial from Australia's Tasmania island suffers from a strange and rapidly spreading facial cancer that threatens to drive the species to extinction. Thankfully, Australian scientists may have discovered the source of the cancer.

Researchers have named the cancer "devil's facial tumor disease." It spreads when the creatures bite each other in the face while fighting and then continues to choke off the animal's mouth and travel to other organs. According to the Times, "the disease has wiped out 60 percent of all Tasmanian devils since it was first observed in 1996, and some ecologists predict that it could obliterate the entire wild population within 35 years."

Scientists initially thought the cancer was actually a virus, but researchers compared the DNA from 26 different animals, both sick and healthy. They found that the tumor cells were different from the cells found in the animals and they took note of which genes in the tumors were active, discovering that one single nerve cell gene from one devil created the facial tumor disease cells and then spread to many other animals.

The powerful cells spread like parasites, and scientists have found only one other disease with similar attributes: canine transmissible venereal tumor. Researchers have compared tumors from dogs around the world and found, as with the devils, that the tumor cells seem to descend from one single cell from one single animal. Only, with the dogs, the tumor cells seem to be thousands of years old whereas the devil tumor genes seem relatively young — perhaps catching the devil cancer early will give scientists a chance to intervene and save the species from extinction.

The next area of study for researchers is to find out how a cancer can become infectious. The Times reports that this research "may help in the development of a vaccine that could prime Tasmanian devils to fight invading cancer cells.

Infectious cancer plagues Tasmanian devils
Australian researchers identify the origin of the disease that has wiped out 60 percent of the population since its discovery in 1996.