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A Devil of a Disease

Co Authors:

Dylan P. Macuk
Department of Biology
Bradley University

William J. Moser, Jr.
Department of Biology
Bradley University

Kaleigh A. Tockes
Department of Biology
Bradley University

Keith A. Johnson
Department of Biology
Bradley University


Since its first recorded appearance in 1996, Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) has wiped out an estimated 70 percent of the Tasmanian devil population. Scientists considered bacterial, viral, chemical, parasitic, and genetic causes before determining that the animals were afflicted with a form of transmissible cancer. In this interrupted case study, students review the history of the disease and then use their understanding of the scientific method to recreate some of the thinking that scientists used to try to understand DFTD.  In addition to designing an experiment, students review some of the known causes of human cancer, genetic diversity and bottlenecks, karyotypes, and the potential for transmissible cancer to become zoonotic. Students also consider possible methods for containing and eliminating DFTD. Written by undergraduate biology students, the case is suitable for high school and freshman introductory biology classes. A more advanced treatment for upper-division undergraduates of many of the issues presented here can be found in another case study in our collection, "Poor Devils: The Plight of the Tasmanian Devils," by Annie Prud’homme Genereux.

  • Review the scientific method.
  • Use critical thinking to deduce the cause of a curious effect.
  • Practice designing experiments and methods.
  • Employ scientific thinking in a non-standard context.
Keywords: Cancer; transmissible cancer; devil facial tumor disease; DFTD; canine transmitted venereal disease; major histocompatibility complex; MCI; Tasmanian devil; marsupial; Tasmania
Topical Area: Scientific method
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Discussion, Interrupted
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Cell Biology   Genetics / Heredity  
Date Posted: 10/30/2012
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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A great case, that is both locally relevant for our students and well crafted to include knowledge and skills from different sections of the curriculum. This will definitely become a useful educational tool. Thanks!

Brendan Watts
Murray Bridge High School

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