Probing the genetic basis for dog-human relationships

By Pooja Makhijani

A new study has identified genetic changes that are linked to dogs’ human-directed social behaviors and suggests there is a common underlying genetic basis for hyper-social behavior in both dogs and humans.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers, including those from Princeton University, sequenced a region of chromosome 6 in dogs and found multiple sections of canine DNA that were associated with differences in social behavior. In many cases, unique genetic insertions called transposons in the Williams-Beuren syndrome critical region were strongly associated with the tendency to seek out humans for physical contact, assistance and information.

Emily Shuldiner

Emily Shuldiner, Class of 2016, was a co-first author on a study published in the journal Science Advances on genetic changes linked to dogs’ social behaviors toward humans. PHOTO BY ALEXIS BAILEY

In contrast, in humans, it is the deletion of genes from the counterpart of this region on the human genome, rather than insertions, that causes Williams-Beuren syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by hyper-social traits such as exceptional gregariousness. The study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, was published July 19, 2017, in Science Advances.

“It was the remarkable similarity between the behavioral presentation of Williams-Beuren syndrome and the friendliness of domesticated dogs that suggested to us that there may be similarities in the genetic architecture of the two phenotypes,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and the study’s lead author.

Emily Shuldiner, Class of 2016 and a co-first author, pinpointed the commonalities in the genetic architecture of Williams-Beuren syndrome and canine tameness as part of her senior thesis research.

VonHoldt’s findings suggest that only a few transposons on this region likely govern a complex set of social behaviors. “We haven’t found a ‘social gene,’ but rather an important [genetic] component that shapes animal personality and assisted the process of domesticating a wild wolf into a tame dog,” she said.

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