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Adam Boyko: Genetic Architecture of Dogs

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Title: Research associate, Stanford University
Education: PhD, Purdue University, 2005
Recommended by: Carlos Bustamante, Stanford University

Some dogs are not quite feral, yet not quite pets either. They hang around human settlements and rely on people for food, but aren't actively bred. These village dogs are a "natural or randomly breeding population of dogs that pretty much live how dogs have lived throughout the ages," says Adam Boyko. Studying the diversity of village dogs, he adds, may help researchers understand canine morphological diversity as well as when and where dogs were domesticated.

Boyko is using dense SNP genotyping arrays and next-gen sequencing to dive into the genetic architecture of these village dogs. "My background is in evolutionary biology, and I thought it was astounding that we were mapping all of these terrific traits and we really don't know where they arose, when they arose, [and] how selection acts on them in natural populations," he says.

Recently, Boyko and his colleagues reported loci that affect dog body size in PLoS Biology. In purebred lines, he says, the variation in body size can be accounted for by just a few loci, including IGF1. In village dogs, however, it's a different story. "The same loci that control body size in purebred dogs control body size in the village dog, but they explain a much smaller proportion," Boyko says. "In fact, when you look between geographical regions, we see large differences in body size and those differences between regions do not seem to be controlled by the same loci." The control of body size in village dogs is similar to how height is determined in humans.

One of Boyko's challenges is seeing a few moves down the road to know what data he'll want to have in a year's time. "Targeting your efforts so you are going to have that data and you'll be able to analyze and get that paper out in a year — that's always sort of tricky," he says.

Looking ahead

While Boyko says there is going to be a push toward more and more sequencing soon, there will still be a role for genotyping — particularly in non-human populations such as dogs. "You have simplified the number of haplotypes within the breed, you actually can isolate genomic regions and then sequencing in small regions is much more feasible than doing genotyping by sequencing," he says.

Papers of note

In addition to the PLoS Biology paper, Boyko was lead author on a 2009 PNAS paper that focused on the population structure of African village dogs, in which he and his colleagues show that these dogs are a mix of indigenous dogs and non-native, breed-admixed dogs. "It was a project that we put together only at the last minute as sort of a brainstorming session between Carlos [Bustamante] and I. Just me saying to Carlos, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we did this?' And in a few months we got the data, we analyzed it, and saw some really interesting patterns," Boyko says. In addition, they noted that African and East Asian village dogs had similar levels of mtDNA haplotype diversity, which may mean that dogs were not first domesticated in East Asia, as is commonly thought.

And the Nobel goes to ...

"I would definitely want to win the Nobel Prize for medicine for curing some sort of disease that has been a scourge of humanity," Boyko says. "I think that studying dogs is — I don't know if it is the path to the Nobel — but I definitely think it's going to help us solve some important diseases."