The Dog Genome Project

The Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington launched the $50 million Dog Genome Project in 1990. Today, it is part of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The Broad Institute/MIT and over 100 labs worldwide participate in the project. Their initial goal was to map the genetics of canines in order to characterize disease genes, ultimately cloning the genes to pursue cures.

Genes hold the key to all inherited information. The genes line up on chromosomes like beads on a string, and their pattern can be mapped, improving scientist’s understanding of how genetic traits are passed from parent to offspring.

Dogs are a close evolutionary relation to humans, even closer than rodents. Purebred dogs are used for the project; the Boxer was chosen as the first breed because they have the least variation in their genome. Blood from a female Boxer named Tasha was mapped, revealing that humans and dogs share 18,473 common genes; humans and mice share 18,311 common genes.

Because human breeding is largely random, it is more difficult to isolate a disease-causing gene. Purebred dogs trace their lineage back several generations through the process of selective inbreeding. They have been bred for their good characteristics, and the weaker characteristics have been bred out over decades.

There are 150 dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. The diversity of breeds makes it possible for geneticists to more easily identify the specific gene(s) that causes a disease.

Nine other breeds will be mapped, as well as a wolf. These breeds will be dogs not related to the Boxer, such as Beagles, to allow geneticists to isolate breed-specific variations in the genome. Complex diseases are difficult to map in humans; the differences in breed maps could reveal important clues to illnesses.

In this manner, the single gene responsible for rare inherited disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy, has been identified through human gene mapping.

Humans and dogs share common diseases, such as cancer, epilepsy, and diabetes. The Dog Genome Project will help scientists understand these diseases better, and treat them in both humans and dogs.

For instance, 30-50% of all dogs suffer from cancer. Certain breeds have a higher incidence of the disease, suggesting that a specific genetic factor can be identified. A number of canine cancers are similar to human cancers. Identifying the genes could lead to cures for both humans and dogs