Jovelle Tamayo/The New York Times

September 14, 2022

Cornell Startup Embark Founded to Assess Various Dogs’ Genealogy

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Embark, a canine DNA testing company founded in 2015 by brothers Ryan and Adam Bokyo in Cornell’s Incubator for Life Science Companies, is now taking strides in studies of the canine genome. With the swab of a dog’s cheek, Embark can provide information about the dog’s genetic risk factors and ancestry. 

Embark is working on building a data set of cutting edge genetic information of dogs for research purposes, while simultaneously helping dog owners accumulate as much knowledge about their dog’s health as possible.

“Our message is that we can help owners take the best care of their dog with preventable issues that could come up and help owners maximize the time and quality of time they get to spend with their dog,” said founder and Chief Executive Officer Ryan Boyko. 

Embark has made landmark discoveries in the field of canine genetics such as inbreeding depression in golden retrievers, blue eye coloration in huskies and hearing loss in rhodesian ridgebacks. 

“We are not comfortable with the status quo of the 250 things we can test for today,” co-founder of Embark Prof. Adam Boyko, biomedical sciences said “We want to find the next 250 things so that DNA testing is even more valuable in the future.” 

Embark is pushing boundaries in canine genetics by working with researchers to create new tests to further learn about each dog’s ancestry.

The Dog Age Test, launching this fall 2022, is an epigenetic test that looks at the amount of methylation — a type of epigenetic modification that influences which genes are turned active and inactive — in a dog’s DNA instead of the genetic code to translate into the calendar age of the dog. 

Methylation is a reversible process that works by blocking proteins from reading the DNA and turning the DNA “off,” repressing the gene. DNA is made up of four bases: Adenine, thiamine, cytosine and guanine. Epigenetic marks — phenotype changes that do not affect the DNA code itself — act on the DNA to affect how it is expressed by telling cells in the body what to become. Epigenetic patterns are not permanent and can differ based on environment, lifestyle and disease. 

Methylation acts as a clock, so the genome becomes less methylated as we age. This means that the amount of DNA methylation and position where it occurs can be used to identify how old a dog is. With just a cheek swab, an owner can know how old their dog is within five months. 

Incorrect modifications to gene activity, even without changes in the DNA sequence itself, can cause health and behavioral risks. As a result, epigenetics can be indicators of various diseases.

For example, different canine cancers have been associated with epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation and histone modifications. The most common canine cancers are seen through tumors along with cancers seen in soft tissues, digestive organs or bones. 

Getting more tests into the public sphere is the best way to get more data and Embark has done this multiple ways. The first dog DNA test product was launched on the Today Show in May 2016. Since then, the test has been featured in shows such as Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl and Oprah’s Favorite Things.

From this increased awareness, Embark is now starting to work directly with veterinarians selling test kits in veterinary clinics to assist veterinarians in genetic tools for treatment of dogs. The organization recently partnered with Westminster.

“The first vet clinics that we started selling to have given us a wildly positive response with results that have been out of left field to save the dog’s life, and otherwise we would not have known that a dog had a potential life threatening disorder and would have not been avoided,” Adam Boyko said. 

Preventative care through genetics can give very valuable information so by educating veterinarians Embark is working to improve canine health overall. 

“We are unlocking the future of dog health,” Adam Boyko said, “where we are building both the data set as well as research capabilities that will enable the next big advancements in dog health.”