People often call dogs “man’s best friend.” But after Elaine Ostrander’s presentation at our Washington, DC, headquarters Thursday, we think that moniker should probably be amended to “geneticist’s super-best friends.”

When it comes to studying basic genetics, dogs offer researchers an enormous advantage. This is because they have documented breeding histories, explained Ostrander, who is a top scientist at the National Institutes of Health. 

During her program, “Dog Genes Tell Surprising Tales,” Ostrander broke down her dedication to studying the dog genome. 

“We want to know why dogs get cancer and why certain breeds have an excess of cancer. We want to know how different dog breeds developed and we want to understand how dogs were domesticated,” Ostrander explained. “And finally we’re interested in understanding how canine development and migration around the world has paralleled human migration and human development.”

Years of painstaking work have allowed Ostrander’s lab to create a mind-blowing ribbon chart showing how every single dog breed was created—“who combined with who to make what … how DNA got transferred and shifted all around these 161 breeds to create the breeds as we know them today.” 

This level of insight on the genetic variation between dog breeds is like opening a window that shows Ostrander and other scientists why certain breeds are predisposed to specific cancers and other diseases. And this information can, in turn, help explain the genetics underlying many human diseases, too.
Ostrander is very aware that her life’s work wouldn’t be possible without cooperation from dog owners, dog breeders, dog lovers, and veterinarians. 

“Everything we do is a partnership with the general public,” she said at the opening of her presentation.

So if you have a rare or unusual breed, an international breed, a giant breed, or what’s known as an “ancient dog," meaning certain breeds whose genetics diverge from other doga, including Basenji's and Afghan Hounds. Ostrander and her team would love your help in unraveling dog history. And if you have a Bernese Mountain Dog, Flat-Coated Retriever, Scottie, Westie, Sheltie, Belgian Tervuren, Belgian Sheepdog, or Chow Chow, you may even be able to help Ostrander’s lab investigate cancer susceptibility. 

“We love dogs,” she concluded, soliciting audience members with breeds of interest to contact her Dog Genome Project lab. “We want to help make them stronger, we want to make them healthier, but we also want to help improve human health, as well.”

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