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Poor Devils

The Plight of the Tasmanian Devils


Annie Prud’homme-Genereux
Continuing Studies and Executive Education
Capilano University


Cancer is usually thought to be a disease that affects individuals. But could cancer evolve to become infectious? This case follows the research on a form of transmissible cancer that is decimating the Tasmanian devil, the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial. Students analyze two landmark papers that uncovered the molecular mechanism of this cancer, which is known as Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). Through this case, students develop an understanding of cancer, immunology, microbiology, and cytogenetics in addition to becoming more comfortable using primary research literature. The case was developed for third-year biology students in a molecular biology course, but may also be used in courses in genetics, evolution, immunology, conservation, and research methods.


  • Research answers to biological questions using trusted sources of information.
  • Summarize research results in writing and orally.
  • Describe the causative agents of infectious diseases and how they may be linked to cancer.
  • Describe how cells become cancerous.
  • Describe how the immune system fights off infectious diseases and cancer.
  • Describe what an MHC gene is and what its product does in the cell.
  • Describe in general terms the methods used to study the karyotype of a cell and compare karyotes to detect mutations.
  • Propose hypotheses to explain observations.
  • Examine data, reach conclusions, and evaluate the soundness of the claims made from data.
  • Design a controlled experiment.
  • Evaluate the merit of different experimental designs, choose the best one for a given situation, and justify your choice.
  • Extrapolate observations from one species to other species, taking species-specific factors into consideration.
  • Use knowledge of molecular biology to guide conservation efforts.


Tasmanian devil; Sarcophilus harrisii; facial tumor disease; cancer; major histocompatibility complex; immune system; immunology; karyotype; cytogenetics; infectious disease; extinction; endangered species; marsupial; Tasmania; experimental design

Topical Areas

Scientific method

Educational Level

Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Interrupted, Jig-Saw, Journal Article; Student Presentations



Subject Headings

Molecular Biology  |   Cell Biology  |   Genetics / Heredity  |   Biology (General)  |   Evolutionary Biology  |   Ecology  |   Microbiology  |  

Date Posted


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