Last year the koala, Australia's iconic marsupial, was officially listed as a threatened species in large parts of the country following two decades of devastating population losses.

Hard hit by drought, loss of habitat and attacks by other animals, including domestic dogs, the nation's koala population has also been ravaged by disease — including a sexually transmitted strain of chlamydia and the koala retrovirus (KoRV), their equivalent of HIV, often found in devastating combination.

Now, however, Australian researchers have announced what they describe as the discovery of the "holy grail" for understanding the workings of the species' immune system — raising the prospect that the deadly effects of the sexual infections afflicting them might one day be better controlled with vaccines and that the koala will be saved from extinction.