Current Research

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Research Priorities

Current Research

The Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia is currently supporting:

Profiling Myxomavirus

Myxomatosis has been in Australia since 1950 and still persists with periodic outbreaks, sometimes with significant impact. However, not a lot is known about changes in virus virulence and rabbit resistance since rabbits first developed resistance to myxomatosis, and how the presence of RHDV may influence such changes.

With support from Rabbit-Free Australia, Kandarp Patel (University of Adelaide) will survey outbreaks, collecting samples to analyse for the presence of myxomatosis. Positive tissue samples will be further analysed to better understand any changes in the genetic structure of the virus, and identify any variants suitable for further studies of myxoma virulence and rabbit resistance.

RATs for Rabbit diseases.

Laboratory analysis is currently required to determine if rabbits have had RHDV or other lagoviruses (diseases of rabbits and hares). Grant Hansman (Griffith University) aims to develop Rapid Antigen Tests suitable for field application, through a project supported by Rabbit-Free Australia.

The tests will identify the presence of antigens to lagoviruses and be useful in screening infections and their transmission, and in tracking the distribution of viruses like RHDV. As an example of potential applications, quickly determining if specific RHDV variants were already present in local rabbits would be a great help in deciding whether a release of RHDV-K5 was advisable or not.

Turretfield Tissue Library

Over thirty five years worth of tissue and blood samples from Australia’s longest running rabbit monitoring site at Turretfield Research Centre were at risk of being lost until Rabbit-Free Australia and a team of researchers stepped in to secure their future. Those samples, and others from sites around Australia and remote islands, will be catalogued for easy access, and then stored in the University of Adelaide’s BioBank. Dr Amy Iannella is managing this work, with thanks to the University of Adelaide for accepting this valuable research collection.

Open Access – Journal publications

In the interests of ensuring as wide a readership as possible for important journal articles, the Foundation has covered the costs of ‘open access’ publication for several documents.

Two documents are under preparation, drawing on work conducted as part of PhD studies by Amy Iannella, which the Foundation supported. Both will make important findings available to a wide audience.

One will report the finding that immune genes may differ between east and west coast rabbits in Australia – possibly explaining the differential impact of RHDV2 in different states. The second concerns the reproductive strategy and gene flow of rabbits at the Turretfield long term monitoring site, including evidence of multiple paternity and frequent mating outside of social groups, and the importance of RHDV outbreak/birth timing in juvenile survival.

Exploring Gene-drive Technology

Dr Stephen Frankenberg of the University of Melbourne will lead this frontier, ‘blue-sky’, research to see if it is possible to modify a specific rabbit gene (e.g. one related to fertility) in a way that is self-propagating, thus becoming predominant throughout the population. Gene-drive technology has been used in insects but its wider application remains to be tested through projects like this. Should the technique be effective, there will be numerous ethical and social questions to work through before it is applied. This work will help RFA to better understand the prospects of the technology and the complex issues around it.

The University of Melbourne research conforms with biosecurity standards for gene-drive research and is a small first step to what could eventually be a major tool in wild rabbit control. The project has two parts, firstly to develop the technology in zebrafish (a species often used for such work), including measures to enable gene-drive resistance in non-target populations, then moving to proof-of-principle trials with rabbit stem-cells.