The scientists believe that the knowledge gained will offer critical insights not only into dog genetics, but human genetics as well.
“Understanding the dog genome helps us understand the human genome,” Bustamante said. “It helps us understand human traits. Dogs are the most phenotypically diverse species. If humans varied as much as dogs, we’d have two-feet-tall humans and 20-feet-tall humans.” Boyko agreed, adding: “Dogs are fast becoming an important species for medical genomics,” he said. “Many disease variants have been found in dogs, some of which have given us important insights into human disease.”
Moreover, “we care about dogs,” Bustamante said. “By studying genetic disorders, for example, by going out and finding the genes involved, we may find ways to cure them. Dogs are a great model system. If you understand why dogs get cancers, you get certain insights into human cancers. Ultimately, we would love to create a toolbox of approaches that can be applied to other systems; what we learn about dogs can help us study evolution in other systems. There’s an intense connection there.”
The researchers are in the genetic analysis phase of the project, meaning they are examining common genetic markers and comparing them to wolves and breed dogs. “We are also genome sequencing, and will build demographic models to compare the genomes of the village dogs to the wolves and the domestic dogs to see what’s unique and shared, and what you see only in breed dogs,” Bustamante said.
The implications of having this repository of out-bred dog DNA samples and phenotypic data are huge.
“We now have better resolution than ever for determining the origin of dogs as well as the first ever picture of what ‘natural’ dog populations look like phenotypically and genetically,” Boyko said. “Dog geneticists have been able to find many interesting genetic variants using association mapping in purebred dogs now, for the first time, we can see where and when these variants arose, and start to understand how they affect individuals under ‘natural’ conditions. Perhaps most importantly, we are able to generate a list of millions of genetic variants in dogs that will be useful for future genomic projects, since currently nearly all the variants known in dogs are known from sequencing just two individual dogs: a boxer and a poodle.”