New study shows parallels in dog and human genomes

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The domestication of dogs was a great step forward for humankind, and a new genetic study reported in Nature Communications (May 14, 2013) suggests that it may have happened about 17,000 years earlier than previously believed at 15,000 years. Our species may have been living together and affecting each other for 32,000 years! Or maybe it was even earlier. In any case, it was a long time in human or dog years, but though the timing is of great scientific interest, I’m just glad it happened — and I think we may have gotten the best of the deal.

Adoptable Belgian Malinois mix

This adoptable Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd mix in Horn Lake, Mississippi represents two of the breeds mapped.

But what may be of more interest is that the scientists are now able to map and compare the human genome and the dog genome. Turns out we seem to have been evolving in parallel ways. No wonder we get along so well.

Analyzing the study, National Geographic Reporter Jane J. Lee tells us that the scientists did the research by comparing the genomes of three Asian street dogs, four gray wolves and three domesticated breeds: the Belgian Malinois, the German Shepherd and the Tibetan Mastiff. The genes that seem to have been changing most apparently in a parallel fashion were those that deal with diet and behavior and also diseases. Diseases we share include obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorder, epilepsy and some cancers, such as breast cancer, wrote one of the scientists. Seems as if the dogs might have gotten the short end of the stick here.

The authors of the study surmise that “As domestication is often associated with large increases in population density and crowded living conditions, these ‘unfavorable’ environments might be the selective pressure that drove the rewiring of both species,” Lee reports.

There’s more work to be done. There is still controversy over when and where domestication occurred. For more on what researchers are finding out about dogs, read People and Dogs: A Genetic Love Story by Virginia Hughes, keeping in mind, of course, that it’s a developing love story.

My own take on this is that I’m just glad dogs came in from the cold.