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Study of canine genetics holds clues to better human health

Could dogs hold the key to better medical treatments for humans? Elinor Karlsson, PhD, assistant professor of molecular medicine, studies canine genetics to better understand human health.

Dr. Karlsson uses evolution as a tool to learn how the human genome stores and passes on inherited traits. To do this, she studies artificial selection and behavioral genetics in dogs. At the end of 2015, his laboratory launched a recruitment project now called Darwin’s Ark, using dogs as a model organism for studies of behavioral conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What may surprise some is that dogs and humans evolved together. For thousands of years, humans have bred dogs to excel in behaviors such as herding, tracking, and retrieving. The genes at work in these behaviors, including genes related to neurological processes, disease development, feeding and digestion, are actually surprisingly similar in dogs and humans. Karlsson’s research on obsessive-compulsive disorder in dogs and humans has demonstrated that dogs are an excellent model for studying and understanding the genetic basis of human psychiatric illnesses. She is one of the authors of the landmark 2005 article in Nature who sequenced the dog’s genome.

the Darwin’s dogsThe project, launched last year, recruits dog owners to complete an online questionnaire about their pets’ habits and to collect saliva samples from their pets.

“The ultimate goal is to look for genetic changes that correlate with certain behaviors,” Karlsson said. “What we learn could help unravel the mysteries of the neural pathways that contribute to brain disorders.”

Karlsson was surprised at how quickly word of the project spread and the willingness of dog owners to collect their dogs’ genomic information through saliva samples.

“In the past three months, our Darwin’s Dogs website has received 130,000 hits from 78,000 visitors from around the world,” she said. “We currently have nearly 6,600 dogs registered thanks to dog owners who answered over 610,000 questions.”

Along with the questionnaires, 1,900 saliva sample kits were sent out, more than half of which were returned for research, according to Jesse McClure, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Karlsson’s lab. They are always looking for dog owners to volunteer.

Related stories on UMassMedNow:
Wall Street Journal: UMMS study of canine DNA could produce findings to help people
Genetic discovery of canine compulsive behavior could provide new insight into human OCD

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