Q&A about Darwin’s Dogs

PUBLISHED ON October 21, 2016 by elinor karlsson

When did you start Darwin’s Dogs?

Darwin’s Dogs was launched just last October (2015). The big difference with Darwin’s Dogs as compared to other research we did in the past is that we are engaging directly with dog owners, and we are interested in all dogs – purebred dogs and mixed breed dogs and dogs that have no breed at all. The technology for studying DNA has advanced so quickly over the past ten years that now it is possible to look at a dog’s DNA in much more detail, allowing us to take this new approach.

When do you plan to rolling in out to the rest of the world?

Anyone, anywhere in the world, can sign their dog up at our website and join the project, and we’d love them to do that! Right now, though, we aren’t able to send the DNA kits to people outside the US, mostly because of the expense of shipping the kit. We are working on finding a solution to this problem as soon as possible.

Could you explain how the study of dog DNA will help science understand mental illness within humans?

One of the big challenges with mental illnesses is that for many people, the medications we have available now just don’t work, or don’t work very well. Even when they do work, they often come with side effects that make them unpleasant to take. To develop new, more effective treatments, we need a better understanding of what is actually going wrong in the brain, so we can develop new treatments that carefully targeted exactly the right signaling pathway. Finding the genes connected to a mental illness, like OCD, in dogs, will help us identify the brain signaling pathway involved in OCD in dogs and human. Darwin’s Dogs is investigating normal canine behaviors as well as diseases, though. We think that finding the small genetic changes that led to complex behaviors, 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.

Why dogs as opposed to other animals?

Dogs are really unique as a species. They are the first animal that humans domesticated, and their behavior has been shaped by thousands of years of artificial selection by humans, leaving distinctive patterns in their DNA at genes controlling behavior. We also live very closely with them, so dog owners can almost always tell us about their dog’s behavior in far more detail than we could gather for just about any other animal.

Has the study of dog DNA, in the past helped in the understanding of human diseases and illnesses?

Definitely. Even though the field is still young, there have already been successes. For example, studying narcolepsy in dogs found the gene mutation causing the disease, and led to critical new insights into the molecular biology of sleep, and, eventually, to new treatment options for people. For retinitis pigmentosis, a form of progressive blindness, genetic studies and clinical trials in dogs could lead to new treatments for humans. Our work on OCD is still ongoing, but we’re finding genes in dogs that fit into the same signalling pathways found in human patients.

What in return do the dog owners get by submitting their mutt’s DNA?

If we use a dog’s DNA in one of our research projects, we will give dog owners all information we have about their dog’s breed makeup and ancestry, and anything else we figure out. We’ll even give them the raw genetic data itself if they are interested! We will also update them as new discoveries are made. This is a true research project, though, so we can’t guarantee when dog owners will get results. To look at each dog’s DNA, we are using brand new technology that gives us much more information on each dog. This is why we are able include all dogs and not just purebred dogs in our studies. We are still developing this technology, though, so we are asking all of our participants to be patient.

How long will take to complete the study?

We don’t expect Darwin’s Dogs to ever end. The more dogs that enroll, the more powerful our research will be. Right now, we have 8,640 dogs signed up and have just started getting DNA samples returned to us. We think we will have the first genetic findings from Darwin’s Dogs within the next year, but we hope this is just the beginning. This is why the most critical part of Darwin’s Dogs are the dog owners. The part of Darwin’s Dogs that I am most excited about are not the DNA samples themselves, but that owners have answered over 810,000 questions about their dogs. This is incredibly valuable information that took them time to provide, and that we could never get without their help. Once we have their DNA, the same dog can participate in studies of behavior, studies of diseases (like cancer) and studies of physical traits, like coat color or body shape. The more we know about each dog, the more powerful our research will be. We are planning to make the Darwin’s Dogs data available as a research resource to other scientists anywhere in the world and we are really excited to see what they do with it.

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