Scientists Searching for Clues to The First Dog

Village dogs’ genetic code may hold clues to canine evolution and health
By Jane Brackman PhD, May 2013

Like classic twin studies that investigate the interplay of nature and nurture, comparing the genome of village dogs to modern dogs may help disentangle the long-term evolutionary effects of genetic and environmental influences.

Mastiff to Min-Pin, Corgi to street cur: all dogs share the same set of roughly 20,000 genes. What makes one dog different from another—or, in the case of purebreds, almost the same— is how the genes are expressed and restricted from being expressed, and how they communicate with one another. Therefore, it may be safe to say that each of the world’s 800 to 900 million dogs is a distinct combination of different versions of the same genes. Or maybe not. At least, that’s what some scientists suspect, and they think they’ll find answers in the DNA of the ubiquitous, free-ranging canine outcasts that populate developing countries throughout the world.

While village dogs were being socially shunned, modern dogs—a subpopulation that likely split off from village dogs thousands of years ago—were serving society. So tightly woven into the fabric of our lives that we rarely think of them as human-engineered, dogs have been refined for increasingly specialized tasks such as hunting, transportation, protection, warfare, ornament and companionship. As a result of rigorous artificial selection over a long period of time, many of their ancestral gene variants are suppressed. Some have disappeared altogether, creating a fragile homozygous genome that has little diversity.

In contrast, village dogs are barely tolerated by society. Although considered a domestic species, they are the products of thousands of years of natural selection. Consequently, their heterozygous genomes are robust and extremely diverse. In addition, it’s possible that long after modern dogs branched off from the family tree, some village dog populations may have developed new gene variants that protect their immune systems.

Evolutionary biologist Adam Boyko, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, is confident that comparing and contrasting the two branches of the domestic canine family tree will provide answers to some of the mysteries that continue to surround the evolution of the domestic dog: When and where were dogs domesticated? What were the global migration paths of humans and dogs? What genetic changes occurred when wolves became dogs? Which genes are responsible for extreme size, shape and behavior differences? What are the underlying causes of genetic diseases? And how do parasites have an impact on canine well-being?

As a postdoctoral student at Cornell, Boyko worked under the tutelage of Carlos Bustamante, now professor of genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine. Curious about how the underappreciated and even less-studied village dog genome might reframe our current understanding of canine evolution and domestication, Boyko and Bustamante persuaded Ryan and Cori Boyko (Boyko’s brother and sister-in-law, who were then both graduate students in anthropology at the University of California, Davis) to add a few side trips to their otherwise romantic African honeymoon. Their instructions were to catch semi-feral, uncooperative village dogs and draw blood samples, then ship the samples back to the lab for analysis. Information from the preliminary DNA samples indicate that the researchers are on the right track. I asked Dr. Boyko about his research, and if it has future application to invigorating the health of our companion dogs.

Jane Brackman: How will mapping the genome of the village dog help us understand the mechanisms of traits in modern dog breeds?

Adam Boyko: Geneticists have spent a lot of time looking at purebred dogs. When something is selected for, either by natural or artificial selection in a population, geneticists can tell because of the patterns that are left in the genomes of individuals in those populations. In humans, for example, we can clearly see that lactase persistence, the ability to digest milk into adulthood, was selected for in some populations.

When we look for these patterns in purebred dogs, we find that things like ear f loppiness and tail curliness are driving these patterns, or short legs or small/big size. Basically, we find the effects of artificial selection by humans for breed standards. If we did a similar scan for selection in village dogs, perhaps some of those same genes would show patterns of selection, but I think we’d also see a new class of genes showing patterns due to natural selection.

For example, maybe there was a lot of selection in early dogs for genes in certain metabolic pathways because there was such an extreme dietary shift from wolves to dogs. Or maybe new parasites and pathogens caused selection at genes influencing the immune system. Or maybe we’ll see selection around genes that influence behavior and temperament.

Basically, there are all sorts of theories about how dogs became domesticated and what makes a dog a dog. When we look at purebred dogs, the main thing we are able to see is what makes certain dog breeds look and behave one way versus another. Maybe by looking at village dogs, which are much less influenced by the strong and recent artificial selection taking place in breed dogs, we’ll be able to see patterns of selection that occurred earlier in dog history.

JB: Might your findings have application for the future? For example, if you were to come across genes influencing the immune system, would breeders be able to use that information to revitalize the pedigreed-dog immune system?

AB: It is certainly true that my research may find a new MHC-type immunity gene [the major histocompatibility complex mediates the immune system’s white blood cells] that has been lost in many purebred dogs and which could reinvigorate their immune diversity. Or perhaps it will find variants associated with diet, and make us start considering a dog’s genetic makeup when making dietary recommendations. But I’m really not comfortable speculating, since I’m likely to be quite wrong in these predictions.

For example, I would have never guessed that deliberately infecting patients with intestinal parasites [Helminthic therapy] would cure ulcerative colitis, but that seems to be the case, and signatures of selection in the human genome help explain why.

But having said that, I think looking at the genomes of village dogs will be extremely useful. For example, we could get a better picture of the kinds of traits that were selected for in natural dog populations, including disease resistance, which might give us useful insights into diseases we diagnose in our pet dogs.

Conversely, as veterinarians and geneticists find more mutations that cause disease or unique traits in dogs, we can look at the genomes of diverse village dogs to see when and where these mutations arose, and whether they are also found in any other village or purebred dog populations.

It’s a really exciting time to be a canine geneticist, as we have all these new genetic tools at our disposal and many, many purebred and free-ranging populations that have yet to be characterized genetically.

JB: Some populations of village dogs, such as those you’re studying, have been isolated for many thousands of years, evolving under pressures that the stem parents of modern breeds were never exposed to. Is it possible that these dogs have “new” gene variants that don’t exist in the genome of modern breeds?

AB: It’s certainly possible, and it’s something I’m very interested in. For example, my lab is looking at free-ranging dogs in the highlands of Peru to see if they have any genetic adaptations for high altitude. Perhaps more importantly, some village-dog populations might harbor disease-resistant variants for parasites or pathogens that are prevalent in their area, but these variants might not have made it into modern purebred dogs, since those breeds were mostly founded elsewhere.

JB: How urgent is it that we learn more about these ancient dog genomes?

AB: We know how quickly pre-Columbian Native American breeds were lost when Europeans brought dogs with them to the New World, and we see that it will happen like that very soon in other remote parts of the world. So we’re working as fast as we can to get the data before the dogs are gone.

JB: What’s going on in your lab now?

AB: We’re collecting DNA samples and the genetic information we need so we can start piecing together what’s going on in these interesting but largely neglected free-ranging dog populations. We are seeking insights into dog population history to discover patterns of selection around certain genes that can then become the basis of further study. Our work is very hypothesis-driven. We have certain hypotheses about how dogs evolved, and we try to collect the right samples to test these hypotheses.

As geneticists learn more about how genetic variation controls complex traits in purebred dogs, we find it’s quite different than what we see in humans. Why? There are at least two competing hypotheses, and by gathering data from free-ranging dogs, we can start testing them to figure it out. Some of this gets into technical discussion about genetic architecture, recombination, epistasis and pleiotropy and such, so I’ve avoided getting too academic. But I also don’t want to be dismissive of it since those technical, hypothesis-driven aspects of the project are the bread and butter of my lab in terms of student training.

JB: In longitudinal studies such as the Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, researchers gather information from participants’ DNA and then match what they find to traits the test dogs may display over a lifetime. Will you have an opportunity to see how, for example, an immunesystem mutation affects a village dog’s health as it ages?

AB: Our project is a huge undertaking, and there’s a ton of data we’d love to gather on each dog but just simply aren’t able to since, at this point, we’re focused on sampling as many dogs from as many populations as possible to maximize the amount of diversity we can analyze. I really don’t want to overstate what we’re able to do in one visit to check out a dog and draw blood, which is limited to looking for genetic signatures in the genome of these dogs showing signs of selection and/or local adaptation.

But, since we have a fairly good idea of what genes do in modern dogs, at least in a rough sense, if we see a genetic signature in village dogs for positive selection around a gene we know is involved in immune function (for example), that’s a big discovery.

JB: At the risk of oversimplifying, say you’re looking at a region that you know to be linked to a negative trait and you see that the switch is turned off in the village dog DNA and turned on in modern dog DNA—would you feel that you’d found a “smoking gun”?

AB: It’s possible. Then, of course, as you allude, we would want to go back, look at dogs carrying that mutation versus other dogs, and see if there are different health outcomes. Perhaps [dogs with the mutation] are more resistant to intestinal parasites or perhaps they are more prone to autoimmune disease or something. Until we find the mutations, it’s a bit speculative to make predications about what exactly the findings will mean to owners. This is certainly “basic research” in the purest sense.

JB: In people, size is determined by hundreds of genes, each with a small effect. In purebred dogs, body size can be regulated by a single gene. Is this unique to dogs?

AB: It depends. There are other traits in other species controlled by a couple of loci [location of a gene on a chromosome]. I would argue that yes, it’s pretty unique. Whether or not dogs are special in that there is something about their genome that predisposes them to this type of diversity, or perhaps because humans worked so hard at creating them, we don’t know. This debate is still raging in the literature. It is definitely the case that genes have many, many effects. Rather than being a blueprint in which each gene is responsible for just one part of building the whole organism, the genome is more complicated, with each gene taking on different roles at different times or in different tissues.

JB: Do multiple-trait relationships also show up in village dogs?

AB: I think this would also occur in village dogs if the mutations were in those populations. The difference is that selective breeding has actively promoted these large-effect, diversifying mutations in dog breeds, making them relatively more common. Natural selection usually selects against such large-effect mutations in natural populations. You won’t see a short-legged wolf because it couldn’t hunt.

In fact, most of these large-effect mutations probably first arose in village dogs. The difference is that these mutations aren’t usually beneficial to village dogs, but the ones that aren’t too detrimental might persist at low frequency long enough for humans to start trying to promote breeding of that trait. Take achondrodysplasia [a type of dwarfism]. It almost certainly arose in village dogs, but to a free-ranging dog, super-short legs and all that comes with them probably aren’t much of a selective advantage. But once folks started looking for dogs to turn their spits, they found these super-short dogs to be useful, and eventually that genetic variant made its way into a whole host of modern breeds.

For the specific achondrodysplasia mutation, I don’t know if that is the exact story, but I do think this is likely to be the case for many large-effect mutations. Depending on how early in dog evolutionary history the mutation arose, it could be found in most regional village dog populations, or it could be restricted to certain populations that are close to where it first arose. Lots of research still left to be done!

JB: As a lifelong dog lover, you must find it difficult to see the deplorable conditions in which some of these dogs live.

AB: There’s so much disease in these high-density populations. As these communities become more urbanized, dogs are living like rats and pigeons. Getting DNA on these populations is not enough of a reason to allow the animals to exist like this. Life on an urban street is rough existence.

JB: If you adopt a village-dog puppy and raise it in a typical Western environment, what kind of dog will you have?

AB: Adopting the dogs is not part of our project, but we know people who have done this. They can be great dogs. They don’t have some of the aggression issues you might see in some of our dogs, because they are culled for aggression, or for eating a chicken. There are some things that aren’t tolerated. So you might say that people in the villages impose a form of selection. The dogs are smart and resourceful. They seem to adapt.

Jane Brackman, PhD, is an authority on the cultural history of canine domestication and the author of two books on pets in 19th-century America. See her new pup, Barkley, and watch him grow on her blog.