Seeking human answers in dog DNA

Picture: ©Jamie Evans /
Picture: ©Jamie Evans /

Understanding why man’s best friend likes fetching a ball could soon be helping scientists in their hunt for the genes behind human mental illness.

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts, in the US, have launched a citizen science project that asks dog owners to submit their mutt’s DNA.

They have called the project Darwin’s Dogs.

Among the project’s aims is to examine dog DNA in greater detail, and in turn to use this to understand human illnesses.

The project’s leader, Elinor Karlsson, said: “To develop new, more effective treatments [for mental illness], we need a better understanding of what is actually going wrong in the brain.

“Finding the genes connected to a mental illness, like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in dogs, will help us identify the brain signalling pathway involved in OCD in dogs and humans.”

The team is also investigating normal canine behaviours.

“We think that finding the small genetic changes that led to complex behaviours, like retrieving, or even personality characteristics, like playfulness, will help us figure out how brains work – also helping us design new, safe and more effective therapies for psychiatric diseases,” Karlsson said.

How it works is that the dog’s owner fills out an online questionnaire that asks for basic information about the canine’s appearance, behaviour, exercise and eating habits.

Researchers also send a DNA sampling kit that contains a cotton swab for collecting DNA from the dog’s mouth.

In return, the researchers send information back to the dog owner about their pet’s genetic ancestry.

Karlsson said while anyone globally could sign up their dog to join the project, they were unable to send DNA kits to people outside of the US, as yet. They are working to find a solution.

Taking a look at South African dogs is something the team is interested in.

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