Last year, with little fuss, a bunch of smart dog and conservation people started the Institute of Canine Biology (ICB) - an essentially-online presence designed to act as a conduit between science and dog-breeders.
"The Institute of Canine Biology is an independent, international consortium of outstanding scientists that are working with the global network of dog breeders to manage and reduce the incidence of genetic disorders in dogs."It's doing that by disseminating research in an engaging way and by offering online courses to dog breeders - both general courses in population genetics, and courses designed for specific breeds.
One for Poodle breeders this month, for instance, includes the latest research into the breed's DLA diversity, a wonderful initiative funded by the Poodle Club of Canada in collaboration with Dr Lorna Kennedy at the University of Manchester.
(DLA analysis looks specifically at genes that code for immune function, of interest to any breed that suffers from immune-mediated conditions as it may provide a way to breed dogs with more robust immune systems.)
The ICB is also hosting The Global Pedigree Project which has the ambitious aim of creating a centralised, free database of the pedigree history of every purebred dog - an international effort that "will bring together pedigree information that is presently scattered among kennel clubs around the world and consolidate it so that the entire history of a breed will be traceable from founders to present day dogs."
The ICB is the brainchild of Carol Beuchat, a biologist and photographer with a lifelong passion for dogs, and she has brought to the party an impressive list of international names. These include Bob Lacy, a conservation guru who has revolutionised wild animal conservation with two key pieces of software - one that models genetic viability (Vortex); and the other a kind of match.com for managed species (PMx).
I spoke to Bob when we were researching the first Pedigree Dogs Exposed to ask if he might be interested in modelling dog populations. He was, but there was nothing that could be done in time for the film. Bob and Carol have already worked together on a paper looking at the genetic management of Basenjiis (link).
Other interesting names at the ICB include:
- French geneticist Grégoire Leroy, who has published several key papers on dog breeding, including several looking at vulnerable French breeds
- population geneticist Katariina Maki who works with the Finnish Kennel Club and is the author of key papers examining genetic diversity in Lancashire Heelers and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers (the latter much discussed here).
- CA Sharp, a renowned lay expert on the genetics of Australian Shepherds who runs the fantastic ASHGI (Australian Shepherd Health and Genetics Institute) - a website offering much to breeders of other breeds, too. Sharp has been a tour-de-force in Aussies for several years.
The ICB has been up and running since spring 2012 and Carol has just written what she calls an "elevator pitch" on what dog breeders need to know (and what the ICB's population genetics courses cover).
Now it has to be said that it would have to be a very high building with a bloody slow elevator to qualify. But, in a nutshell, this is what it's all about:
1) All the useful genetic variation your breed will ever have was in the dogs that founded the breed. This genetic diversity is finite.
2) Every generation, alleles are lost by chance (genetic drift) and also by artificial selection by breeders, who select for dogs with the traits they like, and remove other dogs from the breeding population.
3) Because the stud book is closed, genes that are lost cannot be replaced.
4) So, from the moment a breed is founded and the stud book is closed, loss of genetic diversity over time is inevitable and relentless.
5) You cannot remove a single gene from a population. You must remove an entire dog, and all the genes it has.
6) You cannot select for or against a single gene, because genes tend to move in groups with other genes. If you select for (or against) one, you select for (or against) them all.
7) Breeding for homozygosity of some traits breeds for homozygosity of all traits. Homozygosity is the kiss of death to the immune system. And as genetic variability decreases, so does the ability of the breeder to improve a breed through selection, because selection it requires variability.
The consequences of inbreeding (in all animals) are insidious but obvious if you look - decreased fertility, difficulty whelping, smaller litters, higher puppy mortality, puppies that don't thrive, shorter lifespan, etc. Genetically healthy dogs should get pregnant if mated. They should have large litters of robust puppies, with low pup mortality. Animals that cannot produce viable offspring are removed by natural selection.
9) Mutations of dominant genes are removed from the population if they reduce fitness. Mutations of recessive alleles have no effect unless they are homozygous. So rare alleles are not removed, and every animal has them.
10) Create a bunch of puppies that have a (previously) rare mutation, and the frequency of that bad allele in the population increases, so the chance of homozygosity increases.
11) Genetic disorders caused by recessive alleles don't "suddenly appear" in a breed. The defective gene was probably there all along. Make a zillion copies, and you have a disease.
12) Using DNA testing to remove disease genes will not make dogs healthier (see 2, 5, and 6).
13) The breed will continue to lose genes (by chance or selection) until the gene pool of the breed no longer has the genes necessary to build a healthy dog.
14) At this point, the breed might look beautiful (because of selection for type), but will suffer from the ill effects of genetic impoverishment.
15) The only way to improve the health of a breed is to manage the health of the breed's gene pool.
16) The health of individual dogs cannot be improved without improving the genetic health of the population. Population genetics provides the tools for genetic management of populations of animals.
17) Breeders can improve the health of the dogs they breed if they understand and use the tools of population genetics.
The ICB has just launched on Facebook, too - find and like it here.