Is there a genetic link to being an extremely nice boy?
The DNA data will be matched with the extremely detailed and standardized information collected from the training guide dogs. âWe watch our dogs throughout their lives, from birth. In fact, we watch them from conception, âsays Helen Vaterlaws-Whiteside, Research Manager at Guide Dogs. A newborn puppy’s record details its parents’ mating behavior, birth weight, and litter order. Records of diet, exercise routines, and vet visits will then follow. Training staff and volunteer caregivers Also assess the puppy’s behavior at 5, 8, and 12 months for signs of distraction, anxiety, or excitability. This information is typically used to identify dogs that are unsuitable for the job, before they enter expensive and months-long formal training.
An international team led by the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT sequenced the genome of the domestic dog in 2004, which means they determined the order of the 2.8 billion base pairs that make up the DNA of the ‘species. (Despite looking so different from each other, the 354 breeds recognized today all belong to the same species. There is genetic variation within breeds, and even more between breeds.) The sample was from a 12-year-old purebred boxer named Tasha, who would serve as a benchmark for future sequencing. It was a slow process, putting together a few hundred base pairs at a time, and expensive. At the time, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in the United States provided approximately $ 30 million so that the team can publish the first comprehensive genome analysis one year later.
But sequencing technology has come a long way. The price varies depending on where the sampling is done, but it now costs around Â£ 1,000 in the UK and only $ 700 in the US, to process dog DNA. And researchers can get results within a day. However, analyzing a canine genome takes much longer and costs more than that of a human genome, as there are fewer canine samples available for reference and comparison. NHGRI has since assembled the genome sequences of nearly 4,200 dogs.
Since future guide dogs are regularly vetted by veterinarians and follow set routines when they spend the first 12 months of their lives with caregivers, Guide Dogs’ research team will be able to separate genetics and the environment, to some degree. âGetting information on the genetics of behavior will be really exciting because it’s something that’s quite difficult to measure in a controlled way,â says Cathryn Mellersh, who heads the Kennel Club Genetics Center at the University of Cambridge. “These will probably be the best examples of dogs you can study behavior on.” Of course, researchers can’t completely rule out external influences, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the exact DNA sequences of polygenic traits such as distractibility.
Guide Dogs researchers want to get to the bottom of what makes their dogs tick – or sick – in order to breed dogs that are more likely to succeed in formal training. But it will also be a question of finding the dogs that best meet the needs of their future owners: some people have allergies, others have trouble balancing themselves and need a larger dog to support themselves, others often travel or socialize and want a confident, outgoing dog. It’s not just about eliminating unwanted traits, Lewis says, it’s about maintaining a variety of desirable traits, “because not all guide dog owners will be exactly the same.”
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