Photo courtesy of Jessica Hayward

Penny, a mixed-breed, and Huckleberry Finn,a golden retriever, are two of the over 4,200 dogs included in this genetic study of complex disease and morphological traits

March 8, 2016

Cornell Vet School Researchers Publish Largest Ever Study of Dog Genetics

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Cornell researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine have recently published the largest genetic study of dogs to ever be completed.

Adam Boyko, assistant professor of biomedical sciences, is the senior author of the paper. He said this study would not have been possible without the Cornell Veterinary Biobank, a collection of samples that includes the DNA of over 10,000 dogs from around the world.

“It’s a really great resource for research,” Boyko said. “If you need to get sample sizes that are beyond the capabilities of your lab, you can use the resources that [the biobank] has and much more quickly scale up studies to help you make discoveries.”

Because the researchers had access to the biobank’s samples, they were able to design a study that was vastly different from most genetic analyses of dogs, according to Boyko. He added that most traditional studies compare dogs of only one breed at a time.

In this publication, the researchers compared dogs of many different purebred breeds in a large-scale genome-wide association study. According to Boyko, they did this by marking certain segments along the genome and analyzing the traits of the dogs that share that segment of DNA.

“It gives us the zip code of where a variant that affects a disease is, and lets us know where to look [for that disease],” Boyko said.

The researchers successfully identified segments of the genome, called loci, which are associated with shedding, body size, and several inherited diseases. After identifying and analyzing 17 different loci associated with body size, the researchers were able to predict the size of a dog with 90 percent accuracy.

Boyko attributed this success to the relative simplicity of the dog genome, which is one of several reasons he believes dogs could be an excellent translational model species for genetic diseases in humans.

“Dogs are great because there’s a whole bunch of different purebred populations and they’ve been selected for different traits … and so you can find associations with an order of magnitude less samples than if you were doing a human study,” Boyko said.

Huckleberry Finn is one of the purebred dogs in the study

Photo courtesy of Jessica Hayward

Huckleberry Finn is one of the purebred dogs in the study

Boyko also cited dogs’ genetic similarities to humans and said dogs often live in the same environments as people. If an environmental factor is a cause of disease in humans, it is likely also a cause of disease in dogs, who drink the same tap water and often eat the same food as the humans that they live with according to Boyko.

“If you have some sort of environmental toxin, you’re probably going to see the effects in dogs before you would see the effects in humans, if you were looking for it” Boyko said.

Boyko believes that this type of study could potentially help battle certain genetic diseases, such as cancer, in dogs as well as in humans.

“We could identify genes that are important for certain cancers in dogs, [and] if we use this mapping strategy, those genes are likely to be important in certain human cancers as well,” Boyko said. “It’ll give us a lot of insight into what’s going on, which will also help us in tailoring appropriate treatments.”

Jessica Hayward, a post doctoral researcher in Boyko’s lab and one of the first authors of the paper, says that the information in the study is a first step towards helping purebred dog populations stay healthier as well.

“Once you have these loci identified, the future goal is to develop genetic tests so that breeders can test the dogs before they breed them and then make decisions to help create healthier populations,” Hayward said.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communication, and it was made publicly available online so that other scientists can expand upon it.

“It’s a fun data set to play with….researchers everywhere are using it and hopefully coming up with new discoveries too,” Boyko said.