Scientists have taken a big step towards finding a cure for the deadly facial tumour disease that has been threatening the Tasmanian devil with extinction.
Their findings on the cancer afflicting the carnivorous marsupial have been published in the latest edition of the journal Science.
Professor Greg Woods, who works at the Menzies Research Unit in Hobart, made the discovery along with colleagues in New York and Melbourne.
The team says it has worked out exactly what kind of cancer is killing the animals. Until now, the contagious cancer has been as mysterious as it is deadly, but the scientists have established that it is growing in the animals' peripheral nerve cells.
The cells, known as Schwann cells, keep the nervous system running - and Tasmanian devils have a lot of nerves near their whiskers.
Likely to have spread from just one animal
The rare disease has been spreading across Tasmania for the past 13 years. No one knows how it started, but Professor Woods says the nerve-cell discovery suggests that it spread from just one animal.
"That's what we're predicting," he says, "that at one stage somewhere in the northeast of Tasmania, in Mt William, a devil developed a Schwann cell tumour and as each one cell mutated and started to grow.
"Because of the lack of genetic diversity, it could be transmitted between other devils."
The scientists are now trying to find a vaccine to fight the cancer with.