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ThemesMath & Science - Aug 04, 2010

Dog genes teach scientists new tricks

One of the biggest dog DNA banks in the world can be found from the University of Helsinki’s campuses in Meilahti and Viikki. The canine gene research project offers up-to-date information about the genome of human’s best friend, and that of human as well.

Some species show traits of their wild ancestors visibly, like this Greeland Dog on the job in June 2009. Photo: Christine Zenino / Flickr Creative Commons.

”From the DNA samples, we can study different traits in dogs’ structure, behaviour, and health. In addition, we can decode the diversity of different breeds as well as their kinship and evolution,” says the leader of the research group, Hannes Lohi, who is also the Professor of molecular genetics at University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

The genotype of a purebred dog is interesting to the scientists, because dog breeding has been aggressive at the expense of health issues. In practice this means that due to intentional inbreeding many dog breeds suffer from hereditary diseases. Tracking the disease genes from the dogs’ genotype may offer hints on how to tackle the same hereditary disease in humans as well.

“It’s two birds with one stone. We look for the disease gene in the dogs’ genotype and according to what we find develop a gene test for breeding. At the same time we start tracking the equivalent human gene from the patients. Studying dogs and humans goes hand in hand. At the same time as we try to achieve more knowledge of human diseases, we aim at helping our best friend,” Lohi sums up the goals of the research team.

The gene tests reveal the hereditary diseases in dogs, and in ideal situation the disease carriers are not used for breeding to make the pedigree healthier.

At the moment the DNA bank consists of samples from well over 30,000 dogs, and every week the bank gets approximately 100 new blood samples.

“The recent media coverage has raised awareness of the project, and many dog owners have contacted us,” says Lohi about the article on the DNA bank in the monthly supplement of Finland’s biggest newspaper. “The samples are collected in clinics and different events were there are many dogs present.”


Some breeds could not be farther away from their howling ancestors, when it comes to appearance, like this Shih Tzu enjoying the summer. Photo: Mike Baird / Flickr Creative Commons.

Also behaviour is under scrutiny

In collaboration with Folkhälsan, institute for welfare and health care, the 16 members of the University of Helsinki’s research team are studying simultaneously the hereditary diseases and other traits of several different breeds at Meilahti and Viikki campuses. New discoveries are made regularly.

“Recently, we have made very interesting discoveries that are linked to diseases such as epilepsy, ataxia as well as autoimmune and bone diseases,” Lohi gives an example.

The research group has also mapped the hereditary diversity of different breeds. “It has been interesting to discover how variable it is,” Lohi says and continues:

“The dogs’ personalities vary immensely between different breeds, because they have been bred for different purposes. I believe that studying the DNA of different breeds is a unique opportunity to discover genes that are linked to behaviour and disturbances in behaviour. This can have vast and substantial influence to understanding behavioural ecology in the future.”

Read more about the canine gene research.

Elisa Lautala works as web editor for University of Helsinki's Faculty of Science. Elisa likes all kinds of cultural events, good books, warm weather, and aqua-jogging.