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59 Genes May Make Your Dog a Better Athlete

By Claudia Kawczynska, May 2018, Updated February 2022

At this year’s Biology of Genomes meeting, a presentation was made by postdoc student, Jaemin Kim working with canine genomicist Elaine Ostrander at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland about the 59 genes that he has identified that seem to be linked to canine athletics, which apparently affect everything from heart rate to muscle strength. What got him interested in this particular course of genomic study was wondering why his basketball skills didn’t quite match up to NBA stars. So he decided to start with looking at the genes that turn sporting dogs into the Michael Jordans of the canine world.

This study looked at 10 sporting dog breeds like Pointers, Setters and Retrievers, and compared their breeds’ DNA to 9 terrier breeds. He found that 59 genes that are linked to traits including blood flow, heart rate, muscle strength, and even pain perception stood out and had more in common within that breed type than with terrier breeds.

As Kim describes the findings in the paper’s abstract:

“Comparison of whole genome sequences data between sport hunting and terrier breeds, groups at the ends of continuum in both form and function, reveals that genes underlying cardiovascular and muscular functions are under greatest selection in sport hunting breeds, including ADRB1TRPM3RYR3, UTRN and ASIC3, rather than genes associated with physical attributes. ...Finally, we observed strong selection for a high impact mutation in CDH23, a gene associated with hearing loss and human Usher syndrome, possibly as a mechanism to control startle reflex in so called “gun” dogs. These results provide strong evidence that sport hunting breeds have adapted to their occupations by improving endurance, cardiac function, and blood fluidity, and startle reflex, demonstrating how strong behavioral selection alters physiology over form to create breeds with distinct capabilities.”


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Needing a way to further assess athleticism, Kim further looked at the breeds—who happen to be mostly herding dogs—who excel at the sport of agility looking for differences in those 59 genes. Only one proved to be significant, a gene called ROBO1 that affects learning ability. So when it comes to agility, Kim said, it seems that a mental attribute may matter more than physical ones do (like svelte basketball star Stephen Curry, for example).

Sarah Tishkoff, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved with the work commented that, “it looks like it’s more of a training thing.” Another issue is to keep in mind is that there are other types of athleticism. Herding dogs (who happen to be the top prize-winners in agility), for example, are great athletes with amazing stamina who race around seeing that their flocks keep together and go in the right direction, even though they are not that muscular looking (something like the canine version of point guards). Kim is starting to look at the genetic basis of that behavior next.