Reserarchers have discovered striking similarities between the immune systems of humans and opossums, the famous Australian marsupial.
It could also lead to breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of facial tumours afflicting the Tasmanian Devils, carnivorous marsupials now found only in the Australian island state of Tasmania.
A US research team compiled the full set of genetic information of the South American opossum, the first time scientists had done so for a marsupial.
Dr Kathy Belov of the University of Sydney was among 11 Australians taking part in an international study led by the leading genomic research centre, the Broad Institute in Boston.
Dr Belov was involved in the painstaking task of comparing the genetic information revealed about the opossum's immune system with that of humans by using highly complex algorithms, or mathematical formulae, on computers.
'We actually found the human and the opossum immune systems are very similar and that was a real a surprise to us,' Ms Belov said.
'People have thought for a long time the marsupial immune system was primitive and not as good as the human immune system, whereas we've actually shown they are actually on par.'
Dr Belov said the discovery meant opossums would make good models for the study of human disease.
Opossums are born without an immune system, which develops as they hang off their mother's teats.
Not only does that make it easier for scientists to study them but a good understanding how the defenceless young survive in the presence of disease-producing organisms known as pathogens would have much wider benefits.
'We can transfer that information to humans where you have problems with premature babies coming down with infections,' Dr Belov said.
'We think that having this basic information about the genome will really help us to expand the field into these new areas.'
The researchers are also working to compile the genome sequence of other marsupials, such as the platypus and the tama wallaby, which will be Australia's first genome project.
Armed with just 'one or two' marsupial sequences, scientists expect to be able learn much more about the little understood scourge of the facial tumours afflicting Tasmanian Devils, Dr Belov said.
The sequences would give the experts the tools to measure the immune responses to the tumours, she said.
This would allow them to better compare animals which recover from the tumours and those that don't.
'That would certainly help us understand the tumour and hopefully come up with a cure in the long term,' Dr Belov said.
Similarly, the genome sequence could help tackle chlamydia in koalas, which is often triggered by the stress of loss of habitat, she said.
Chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted infection among humans, caused by the bacterium, Chlamydia trachomatis, which can damage a woman's reproductive organs. Even though symptoms of chlamydia are usually mild or absent, serious complications that cause irreversible damage, including infertility, can occur 'silently' before a woman ever recognizes a problem. Chlamydia also can cause discharge from the penis of an infected man.