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Why Science Wants to Sequence Your Dog

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Wildlife conservation efforts have gotten a major boost from the use of genomics, as Techonomy reported recently. Now, scientific initiatives to understand animals are coming right into your own home.

Elinor Karlsson, a scientist working on disease genetics in animals, has partnered with major American zoos for in-depth genome studies that could ultimately help conservation programs. She’s also the brain behind Darwin’s Dogs, a citizen scientist project allowing thousands of dog owners to contribute to the research community’s understanding of canine genetics — information that could also shed light on the genetics and evolution of many related, and possibly endangered, species.

From the participants’ perspective, Darwin’s Dogs (which is being renamed Darwin’s Ark to allow for expansion to other household pets) is kind of like 23andMe for their pooch. Anyone can join, answer a series of surveys about their dogs, and receive a DNA-collection kit all at no cost. After shipping the dog’s saliva off to scientists running this project, owners receive a genetic analysis of the dog’s breeding heritage.

As for the scientists, they’re getting massive amounts of data that would otherwise have taken years and potentially millions of dollars to collect. Some 15,000 dogs have already been signed up for the project, and members are analyzing the first 4,000 samples received. The goal is to use survey information provided by participants to pinpoint genes associated with specific traits. In a pilot project, researchers asked participants how tall their dogs are. They combined responses with genetic information, rapidly filtering through reams of data to flag genes associated with height in dogs. For perspective, studies of height in humans have been numerous, time-consuming, and expensive.

Other conservation-related efforts approaching the home involve animals you definitely wouldn’t want to collect saliva samples from. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, scientist Beth Shapiro’s genomics projects involve a study of mountain lions, which are more frequently coming out of the wild and into towns as their natural habitats shrink because of farming, roads, and other human-introduced barriers. As mountain lion territory is blocked off into isolated patches, there is a detrimental effect on the animals’ health: lack of access to other cats means more inbreeding and more genetic problems.

Shapiro’s team uses everything from radio collars to advanced genomic technology to monitor mountain lion behavior and understand the genetic effects of the species’ increasing isolation. Recently, they watched as a mountain lion trying to carve out its own territory wound up coming down from the mountains into a Silicon Valley community, where residents nervously waited as experts attempted to corner the cat and bring it back to the wild.

At the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology conference, Shapiro urged her fellow scientists to help generate and analyze genome information for animals like the mountain lion, struggling to survive in the face of human activity. We “messed up” this planet, Shapiro said, so now it’s our responsibility to address this challenge.

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