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21-May-2004

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Purebred pooch genetics



Coauthor Elaine Ostrander’s purebred border collie, Tess. Tess’ intense gaze, known as “eye,” is part of border collies’ herding behavior. A genetic classification system for dog breeds may allow researchers to identify the genes that underlie such behaviors. Image © Science.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Which dog do you think is more genetically similar to a wolf: a tough German Shepherd or a wrinkly-faced Shar-Pei? The answer is the Shar-Pei, according to dog experts.

Dog-loving scientists are also working on ways to figure out a dog's breed with a simple blood test. They have found that a dog's genes can reveal its breed. A dog can only be officially registered as a member of a breed if both its parents are also registered.

Researchers are now working on developing a genetic "profile" of each domestic dog breed. This type of classification system should help scientists identify genes that cause disease in dogs and even humans.

"There may be 100 heart disease genes in dogs, but just one or two for a German Shepherd or a Border Collie," said Elaine Ostrander of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash.

With the help of dog owners at dog shows and other dog-friendly places, Dr. Ostrander and her colleagues analyzed genetic samples from dogs belonging to 85 domestic dog breeds.



Coauthor Elaine Ostrander’s purebred border collie, Tess. Tess’ intense gaze, known as “eye,” is part of border collies’ herding behavior. A genetic classification system for dog breeds may allow researchers to identify the genes that underlie such behaviors. Image © Science.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

They report their findings in the 21 May 2004 issue of the journal Science.

By comparing the genetic differences among breeds, the researchers were able to learn about the evolutionary history of the different breeds.

While most of the breeds emerged in Europe in the last several hundred years, some of them originated in Asia or Africa at least 2,000 years ago. The dogs in this ancient group, including the Shar-Pei, are the most closely related to wolves even though they don't necessarily look very wolf-like.

German Shepherds turned out to belong to a second group of dogs often used as guard dogs. This group also included many of the boxy, muscular dogs like the mastiff and bulldog.

The authors identified a third group of breeds including many of the herding dogs, such as the Collie and Sheepdog. This group also included other dogs like the Greyhound that look very different but are nonetheless closely related. Most of the dogs in the fourth and last group were originally bred for hunting.

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