Investigating The Domestication Of Dogs Through DNA

NSF-supported researchers map the genetic origins of “village” dogs on five continents

By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Most animal lovers can’t resist bringing home the occasional stray dog. Imagine, then, having to fight this impulse every day, and on the other side of the world, all while trying to maintain some measure of scientific detachment.

Ryan Boyko and his fellow researchers, who spent two years collecting blood samples from more than 1,200 stray dogs in dozens of countries and five continents, understand these emotions very well.

“We wanted to bring dogs home to everyone we know, but having to travel across several more countries and continents made it a little easier to say no,” Boyko says. “Also, our own dog at home, a mutt rescued from an ASPCA shelter, most likely is glad we didn’t bring home a rambunctious village dog. I’m not necessarily convinced many of them would enjoy living in a normal American house or apartment. One day, though, we plan to get a big ranch.”

Ryan Boyko and his wife, Cori, are the traveling members of a team of collaborators led by his brother, Adam Boyko, an evolutionary genomicist from Stanford University. They, along with researchers from UCLA and the National Human Genome Research Institute, are involved in a large research project studying dog genetics and evolution. “Dogs really are a powerful model system for understanding how evolutionary forces influence genetic variation among populations,” says Carlos Bustamante, a professor of genetics at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The Stanford group is mapping the genetic origins of “village” dogs, those mutts and strays that are a “natural or randomly breeding population of dogs that pretty much live how dogs have lived throughout the ages,” says Adam Boyko. While geneticists have learned a great deal in recent years about the evolution of breed dogs, the researchers still don’t know very much about the dogs’ street-wise cousins. Scientists believe that studying village dogs can provide important new information about dog domestication and evolutionary genomics.

“If we think about dogs, they live in different types of worlds,” Bustamante says. “Breed dogs, we keep in our homes. Wolves live in the wild and are subject to natural selection. Then you have village dogs, which are somewhere in between. They have undergone some degree of adaptive change, living near humans–but still are subject to natural selection, the way wolves are. So by studying them, we can get a much better picture of the evolutionary process.”

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