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Portuguese water dogs like Obamas' Bo have a lot to offer genetics researchers

April 16, 2009 |  7:53 pm

Bo the first dog Beyond his allergy-friendly coat, Bo the first dog (and other Portuguese water dogs like him) has a lot to offer. 

Portuguese water dogs are the most genetically studied dog breed out there, and one of the reasons they're so well-suited to genetic research is their rarity.  There are a relatively small number of "PWDs" or "Porties" out there (at least in the U.S.), and all of those registered with the American Kennel Club can trace their lineage back to a group of about 30 "founding" animals that lived in the 1930s. 

This fact means that the amount of genetic variation within Bo's breed is significantly less than it is with other, more popular breeds.  And the research staff at the University of Utah's Georgie Project -- named after its founder's Portuguese water dog, who died of an autoimmune disease in 1996 -- are capitalizing on it.

"This breed may be genetically predisposed to autoimmune diseases...Let us hope [Georgie's] death will have helped remove this curse from the breed," reads a statement on the Georgie Project's website.  Toward that end, its researchers have examined the genomes of more than 1,000 PWDs, received X-rays from 600 and conducted more than 150 autopsies on the bodies of dogs whose owners donated them for research.

"Dogs have many of the same diseases that humans have. There is great hope these [findings] will translate to humans," Georgie Project senior researcher Kevin Chase told Trine Tsouderos of the Chicago Tribune

Beyond its rarity, other factors make the breed ideal from a geneticist's standpoint.  Variation within registered Portuguese water dogs allows for different coat textures (curly or wavy), and markings can be either nonexistent (a plain black dog) or very striking (witness Bo's "tuxedo").  From the Tribune:

That variety allows geneticists to look at the genomes of big water dogs vs. small ones, seeking out regions where genetic patterns differ. When they find genes that seem to have something to do with size, researchers can apply that idea to other breeds, from mastiffs to toy poodles, and see if the pattern holds.

Doing just that, geneticists found that small dogs shared a snippet of DNA near the IGF1 gene, which helps control growth, on chromosome 15. They think that snippet suppresses the IGF1 gene, which keeps dogs small.

The next step was to look in that area for genes affecting diseases of growth regulation, such as cancer, said geneticist and cancer researcher Elaine Ostrander, head of the Dog Genome Project at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md.

"The genes we have found are generally responsible for diseases in humans," she said.

PWD owners and breeders have been incredibly supportive of the Georgie Project, according to Ostrander; she recalls attending one specialty dog show where owners stood in line to donate samples of their dogs' blood.  (More than 400 samples were collected.) 

Asked if the Obamas' dog would be a Georgie Project participant, breeder Karen Miller, who was instrumental in the creation of the project, said she didn't know but said she planned to send the first lady a free T-shirt.  

--Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Bo runs on the White House's South Lawn.

Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images

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