NOV 29, 2018 4:05 PM PST

Pet Genomics Might Need to be Leashed

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

The sequence of the canine genome was completed in 2005. Improvements were made a few years later. Dogs were considered to be a good research model for a variety of diseases, but more recent work seems to be focusing on pet health. A variety of projects have been launched by both academic researchers and private companies with the aim of learning more about dog genes.

One of those private companies is Embark, a partner of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine; they produced the video above and recently published a study on the characteristic blue eyes of Siberian Huskies. They found a strong link between the eye color and a duplication on chromosome 18. They were able to uncover that connection by reaching out to the public. The company didn't have to generate a huge array of genomic samples by collecting them over time, people simply paid the company to test their pets, and the researchers mined the data.

"It's a new way of doing dog genetic research. Instead of an academic researcher like me needing to ask the federal government for money in order to sponsor a study on one particular thing, dog owners pay for the genetic testing up front, and then the genetic data can be quickly put to use by researchers investigating a whole host of different studies," said the co-founder of Embark Adam Boyko.

While both the National Human Genome Research Institute and the Broad Institute also have ongoing projects related to dog genetics, there are still a lot of things we don’t yet know. However, that hasn’t stopped the introduction of pet genetic products to the market.  

A trio of experts weighed in on the matter in a commentary published in Nature earlier this year. They warned that some of these companies are “selling false hope.” They went on to identify the “three major problems” they saw in the pet genetic testing industry. 

One, these tests have not been properly validated. Many of them are based on a single study, which is nowhere near enough evidence to prove that a genetic variation causes a disease. 

A second issue is an interpretation problem. It seems that even human genetic testing can produce results that are inaccurate. An example they cited for pets is a screen for mutations in the ABCB1 gene; several ABCB1 mutations have been associated with adverse drug reactions. The company testing the gene appears to be only looking for one of three mutations that have been linked to drug sensitivity. There may also be unknown mutations in the gene that cause adverse reactions. So, a consumer may get the all-clear when that is not the case.

A final issue identified in the commentary was the potential conflict of interest. A pet healthcare company that wants making a profit might suggest tests to patients that are not necessary or not useful.

Learn more about some of the pet genetic projects you might be able to participate in without spending money by checking out the Broad Institute, The NHGRI Dog Genome Project, or a citizen science project called Darwin's Ark, which was launched to learn more about pet health.

Sources:, NHGRI, Broad Institute, Nature, Genome ResearchPLOS One, PLOS Genetics, Embark

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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