Man's best friend may touch our hearts with their empathy, companionship, playfulness and loyalty, and they may also lead us to a deeper understanding of our heads.
In the article, "The Genetics of Canine Skull Shape Variation," in the February issue of the Genetics Society of America's journal, Genetics, Jeffrey J. Schoenebeck, PhD, and Elaine A. Ostrander, PhD, researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), review progress in defining the genes and pathways that determine canine skull shape and development that have been made in the eight years since the dog genome was mapped.
The implications of this research extend beyond the interests of dog fanciers and breeders. "Dogs can serve as a model for skull growth and shape determination because the genetic conservation between dogs and humans makes it highly likely that craniofacial development is regulated similarly between both species," Dr. Schoenebeck said. "These discoveries are important for human health and biology, especially for children born with craniofacial deformities," Dr. Ostrander, added. In humans these deformities include Apert, Crouzon and Pfeiffer syndromes, where skull bones fuse prematurely causing facial malformations, such as wide-set bulging eyes and broad foreheads, resulting in dental, eye and other physiological problems.
Skull shape is a complex trait, involving multiple genes and their interactions. Thanks to standardized canine breeding, which documents more than 400 breeds worldwide, and their distinct morphological features, researchers can disentangle traits such as skull shape, which in many breeds is a breed-defining variation.