The young son of Stanford University researcher, Prof. Carlos Bustamante, answered the phone this morning at 7 a.m., and handing the phone to his father said, “Oh, it’s for you.” News of his $500,000 MacArthur Award (“genius award”) came as a welcomed surprise to Bustamante. His work focuses on understanding the evolution and interactions of population genetics in dogs, humans and even plants and pathogens.
One of the most recent findings of Bustamante
’s group at Stanford, in collaboration with Cornell and the National Human Genome Research Institute, was that—“in contrast to humans”—many physical traits in dogs are determined by very few genetic regions. For example, a dog with version A of the “snout length” region may have a long, slender muzzle, while version B confers a more standard nose and C an abnormally short schnoz. And let’s say X, Y and Z in the “leg length” region bestow a range of heights from short to tall. That would mean that in this example an A/X dog would have a slender muzzle and short legs like a Dachshund. C/Y might be a Bulldog, while B/Z would be more like a Labrador.
“This mixing and matching of chunks of DNA is how breeders were able to come up with so many different breeds in a relatively short amount of time,” writes Stanford’s Krista Conger.
Fascinating findings and because complex traits in humans are more difficult to discern, their work with dogs has implications for human health as well.