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The immune response and fertility of koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) immunised with porcine zonae pellucidae or recombinant brushtail possum ZP3 protein

Anne L. Kitchener1, David J. Kay1, Bryan Walters2, Peter Menkhorst3, Carmen A. McCartney 1,∗, Janine A. Buist1, Karen E. Mate1, John C. Rodger1

1Cooperative Research Centre for the Conservation and Management of Marsupials, School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia
2Ecoplan Australia Pty Ltd., PO Box 580 Hurstbridge, Victoria 3099, Australia
3Department of Sustainability and Environment, PO Box 500, East Melbourne, Victoria 3002, Australia


To evaluate the potential contraceptive effect of immunisation with zona pellucida antigens, 50 free-ranging koalas were immunised with either porcine zonae pellucidae (PZP), recombinant brushtail possum ZP3 (recBP-ZP3) or buffer, in complete Freund’s adjuvant. A single booster immunisation in incomplete Freund’s adjuvant was administered 3–5 months later. Where possible animals were recaptured, reproductive status was assessed and blood was collected at 1–3-month intervals for the next 33 months. Forty-three koalas were recaptured at least three times allowing reliable assessments of their fertility. Fourteen animals were observed never to have a pouch young. Of the remaining 29 animals the reproductive productivity of PZP treated females was reduced compared with control and recBP-ZP3 treated females, in terms of both total number of young produced, and failure to produce further young in females of proven fertility. One month after the initial immunisation, serum antigen-specific antibody titres were higher in animals immunised with PZP or recBP-ZP3 compared to controls, and reached a plateau by 4 months. Antibody against the relevant immunising antigen was also detected in ovarian follicular fluid, uterine fluid and vaginal secretions. Epitope analysis suggested that immune responses other than antibodies directed against the ZP3 amino acid sequence were responsible for mediating infertility. The results demonstrate that the fertility of female koalas can be compromised by immunisation against zona pellucida antigens. However, unlike in the eastern grey kangaroo and the brushtail possum, immunisation with bacterial recombinant brushtail possum ZP3 did not compromise fertility in the koala.