A group of Australian and international scientists have successfully deciphered the genetic code of the cane toad., The complete sequence, published in the journal GigaScience, will help understand how the toad can quickly evolve to adapt to new environments, how its infamous toxin works, and hopefully give us new options for halting this invader’s march across Australia.
Since its introduction into Queensland in 1935, the cane toad has spread widely and now occupies more than 1.2 million square kilometres of Australia. It is fatally poisonous to predators such as the northern quoll, freshwater crocodiles, and several species of native lizards and snakes.
Ther team, which also featured researchers from Portugal and Brazil, worked at the Ramaciotti Centre for Genomics at UNSW. This centre played a key role in decoding the genomes of other iconic Australian species, including the koala.
The cane toad has iconic status in Australia, with many Aussies loving to hate the poisonous invasive amphibian. This is a little unfair. It’s not the cane toad’s fault – it was humans who chose to bring it to Australia.
Our obsession with sugar in the 1800s led to the toad’s introduction to many countries around the world. Wherever sugar cane was planted, the cane toad followed, taken from plantation to plantation by landowners as the warty interlopers travelled from South America to the Caribbean and then on to Hawaii and Australia.
But unlike most other places to which the cane toad was introduced, Australia lacks any native toads of its own. The cane toad’s powerful poisons are deadly to native species that have never before encountered this amphibian’s arsenal.
The cane toad has therefore been subject to detailed evolutionary and ecological research in Australia, revealing not only its impact but also its amazing capacity for rapid evolution. Within 83 years of its introduction, cane toads in Australia have evolved a wide range of modifications that affect their body shape, physiology and behaviour.
Viruses such as myxomatosis have been successfully used to control rabbits. But the cane toad viruses studied so far are also infectious to native frogs. The new genome could potentially help scientists hunt for viruses that attack only toads.
In a study published this month, we and other colleagues describe how we sampled genetic sequences from cane toads from different Australian locations, and found three viruses that are genetically similar to viruses that infect frogs, reptiles and fish. These viruses could potentially be used as biocontrol agents, although only after comprehensive testing to check that they pose no danger to any other native species.
The full cane toad genome will help to accelerate this kind of research, as well as research on the toads’ evolution and its interactions with the wider ecosystem. The published sequence is freely available for anyone to use in their studies. It is one of very few amphibian genomes sequenced so far, so this is also great news for amphibian biologists in general.
As the cane toads continue their march across the Australian landscape, this milestone piece of research should help us put a few more roadblocks in their path.