Better role than road kill for opposum


It's ugly. It seems dim-witted. It's the punch line of jokes about
road kill.

But the humble opossum may shed light on how humans can recover
from spinal injuries and beat skin cancer.

Scientists in North Carolina and Massachusetts report they
have sequenced the genome of the Monodelphis domestica, a laboratory
animal cousin to the pale, rat-tailed critter that invades people's
crawl spaces and garages at night.

Cracking the animal's DNA code may give insight into a remarkable
talent of newborn opossums. Damaged nerves in their spinal cords
naturally regenerate — a biological feat that scientists would love to
recreate in people.

``If we can unravel the molecular mechanism that allows that, that
would provide a huge amount of important information for the field of
regenerative medicine,'' said North Carolina State University
geneticist Matthew Breen, whose laboratory broke the code with
researchers at the Cambridge-based Broad Institute and others.

In addition, opossum genes might give insight into the lethal skin
cancer melanoma. Opossums are the only mammals besides humans known to
easily develop the cancer from sun exposure.

Such qualities have elevated the long-in-the-snout,
flat-in-the-road marsupial to celebrity status, landing the genome
sequencing story on the cover of the journal Nature this month. Even
that might not do much for the possum's image.

``They've got a bad reputation but they're not as bad as people
think,'' said Matt Scott, who traps possums in the Raleigh, N.C. area
for the animal control company Trutech. Scott, a wildlife biologist,
said the research didn't surprise him:

``A lot of things out there that people hate are helpful in one way
or another.''

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)