Scientists Start Deciphering Dog Genome

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
December 10, 2002

Man's best friend may soon have its genome deciphered.

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland, recently added the dog to its high priority list of organisms to be sequenced once computer capacity becomes available. Canines join a growing group of high priority animals that includes the chimpanzee, chicken, and honeybee.

By comparing the genomes of different organisms, researchers can better understand the structure and function of the human genome.

"Dogs are very good biomedical models if you want to understand human disease," said Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, a geneticist and senior program manager of the mouse genome project at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"You can use all the understanding you have of disease in dogs to understand human disease, and vice versa, because the genes are so similar in the two genomes," she said.

The top ten diseases in purebreds include several that are major health concerns to humans, including cancer, epilepsy, retinal disease, cataracts, and heart disease.

First Completed Sequence

The Whitehead Institute, which spearheaded the international effort to map and sequence human and mouse genomes, also wants to take on the job of sequencing the dog, said Lindblad-Toh. An official decision by NHGRI has not yet been made on which institution will get the project or when it will begin. NHGRI financially supports large-scale sequencing at Whitehead as well as two other institutions—the Genome Sequencing Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

A partial sequence of a standard poodle was completed last year by the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland.

A committee of researchers and veterinarians in the United States and Europe will decide which breed to sequence. Candidates include the Ibizan Hound, Pharoah Hound, Samoyed, Saluki, and Maltese. These breeds are somewhat rare and have small breeding populations. There is not a lot of genetic diversity in these breeds, making sequencing easier, say researchers.

All that will be needed from the dog is a blood sample.

After one breed has been sequenced, a single nucleotide polymorphisms map, or SNP map, will be created for 10 others, including the mastiff, bloodhound, greyhound, and Pomeranian. An SNP map shows genetic variations and is laid over the completed sequence. From this, researchers can infer what the genome of another breed looks like without having to spend the time to sequence it, Lindblad-Toh said.

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