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Tigra Scientifica: Labradors in the laboratory

Courtesy of Wikimedia

When most people think of dogs, they think of the friendly, cuddly companion that everyone loves. This makes it hard to believe that these animals are related to wild wolves. 

Researchers at Princeton University, in a study published in August 2017 in Science Advances, reveal the genetic components behind dogs’ unique social personalities. They tested both dogs and wolves by behavioral studies and DNA sampling to analyze the differences between their interactions with humans. 

The dog’s relationship with the human has changed dramatically from work to play. Dogs were originally domesticated for the purpose of protecting, hunting and herding, but now they are as close to humans as any other family member. This unique relationship began in the Victorian era, when dogs were bred for their appearances and personalities. 

In the early 2000s, the Canine Genome Sequencing Project was released, giving scientists important information about the structure and evolution of dogs’ genes. 

Bridgett VonHoldt, leader of the new study, explains that her original interests were about the gray wolves of the North American Rocky Mountains. 

When the dog genome became available to the public, she widened her research. She noticed the WBSCR17 gene showed something interesting. 

In humans, the gene has an ambiguous role in Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WBS), which is a developmental disorder. In canines, the gene differs greatly between dogs and wolves, and it is associated with sociability and developmental delay in domesticated dogs. 

The research team measured sociability with humans in eighteen domesticated dogs and ten wolves to explore the genetics behind their behavioral differences. 

Compared to the wolves, the dogs spent more time staring at their owners, looking for their owners if they left the room instead of solving puzzles, and standing in close proximity to any human, familiar or stranger. 

The team also took blood samples from the animals and sequenced DNA to search for variation in the WBSCR17 gene and its surrounding region. They found four structural variants between the canines associated with human-directed social behavior. 

Their research is among the few that identifies the genetic mutations related to canine behavior and domestication.  The research showed both experience and genetics give dogs their success in human environment, making them “lovable” and less “threatening.” 

The research team is looking into gene sequencing in the future to further their studies. They hope to sequence the DNA of other domestic species, such as the domesticated cat, and with that learn more about the functional impact these mutations can have on expression of genes.

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