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KSU research helps DNA fingerprinting hit the dog track

By Christina Foust

 

What do greyhounds have in common with the O.J. Simpson trial? A DNA test similar to the one used during the Simpson case is now helping to identify greyhounds and determine their genetic lineage.

Brad Fenwick, professor of pathobiology at Kansas State University, leads the effort to produce a new DNA fingerprinting system to identify greyhounds and their parents. The research is sponsored by the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission. Traditionally, racing greyhounds received tattoos in their ears to distinguish between dogs. However, these tattoos are often unreadable and easy to alter, with no guarantee that the tattoo will take in the first place. According to Fenwick, DNA avoids these problems. "DNA markers are like a fingerprint, only even more specific. You can't fool the DNA."

Though DNA fingerprint mapping has been done before on other plants and animals, the K-State research is unique because it's being done for greyhounds, mapping a specific gene area called the Major Histocompatability Complex, or MHC. Fenwick explains that the MHC makes us uniquely individual because it has the most diverse alleles and controls perhaps the most exclusive personal trait of all, immune function. "The Major Histocompatability Complex controls things such as the acceptance of organ transplants and reproductive ability," Fenwick said.

With the new gene fingerprint mapping of the Major Histocompatability Complex area complete, Fenwick says greyhounds may get their DNA catalogued rather than ear tattoos. First, veterinarians take a sample of tissue, hair or blood. "We prefer samples, because licensed veterinarians must draw the blood. It's more likely to be honest and valid," Fenwick said.

Then, veterinarians compare the pup's DNA with the "fingerprints" of its parents. One female greyhound may be bred to multiple males, producing puppies of different paternal lineage. So, veterinarians may now extract DNA samples from the parent dogs, and compare the Major Histocompatability Complex fingerprints to those of the pups. According to Fenwick, two pups with the same mother and father do not have identical fingerprints, but they are close. Through these comparisons, veterinarians may determine who the pup's father is.

The DNA fingerprint may then go on file to be used as an identification tool should any questions of the dog's legitimacy or parentage arise. DNA helps keep security in the breeding and racing community where identifying the greyhound or its parents becomes crucial for pedigree purposes.

"This test will help put more confidence in the racing world. Before, identification was just a guess. A guess could cost money and a reputation, so you don't want to guess," Fenwick explained.

The National Greyhound Association has not yet implemented the DNA fingerprinting as mandatory for all breeders and racers. Fenwick explained that many breeders currently volunteer to get their dogs, DNA fingerprinted as an additional service to clients.

The K-State research will also help greyhound breeding. Greyhounds are sought as performance dogs, making the breed susceptible to inbreeding of particular traits, such as quickness and longevity. When a population suffers too much from inbreeding, the genetic diversity deteriorates as does the immune and reproductive response of the greyhound.

According to Fenwick, the Major Histocompatability Complex gene helps determine the degree of inbreeding, which may then help breeders select appropriate mates for their dogs. "We can tell when we need to import new gene material before problems arise," Fenwick said. "It is possible to introduce a greyhound from Australia or lreland, for example, with new genes to reduce the possibility of decreased performance in future generations.

Greyhound enthusiasts currently must guess their pup's qualities based on superficial observation of parent dogs. However, the DNA fingerprinting of the Major Histocompatability Complex will help reduce the population of unwanted dogs and give racers more certainty in their champ's ability. DNA fingerprinting is winning the race to preserve the greyhound breed and save owners money and their reputations.

Sidebar: KSU takes DNA fingerprinting beyond the dog track

Research at Kansas State University is helping to identify individual greyhounds and their parents through DNA fingerprinting. However, the implications of this genetic research stretch beyond the fast paced racing community. Brad Fenwick, professor of pathobiology at K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine says, "DNA is being used in everything biological from moon rocks to mummies."

Fenwick and his fellow researchers are mapping the Major Histocompatability Complex, or MHC, which controls immune function and reproduction. Fenwick explains this gene helps scientists identify the degree of inbreeding in a population, helping them to select strategies which can combat the damage it causes.

The Major Histocompatability Complex directly relates to hybrid vigor, a concept which dictates that populations with a shallow gene pool have poorer performance than a genetically deep population. Farmers may understand the consequences of hybrid vigor better than most people. In cattle, for instance, Fenwick says, "when you keep the daughters and re-breed them to the same gene pool, their offspring are smaller, more susceptible to disease, and have poorer reproductive capacity." This is the reason farmers will introduce new, genetically unrelated bulls into a herd to revitalize it.

Knowledge of the Major Histocompatability Complex will help farmers discover how inbred particular individuals are, and allow for selective mating before hybrid vigor decreases in a herd. In the past, Fenwick explains that farmers and even dog breeders have had to rely on luck in mate selection. Knowing the traits present in the Major Histocompatability Complex, though, will allow individuals to be matched with a better mate, producing healthier offspring. This could reduce the possibility of inherit diseases and make animal husbandry even more profitable.

Researching the Major Histocompatability Complex goes beyond domesticated animals and could potentially save species from endangerment. Many wild animal populations, like condors and cheetahs, are isolated and shrinking. Because of the limited number of individuals in a location, the gene pool is also limited.

Consistent inbreeding makes the population less reproductively fit, creating a genetic bottleneck. "Genetic bottlenecks could cause a crash in the population," Fenwick said. Without hybrid vigor, or strong reproductive and immune capabilities of diverse gene pools, a population could spiral down into near or possible extinction.

On a lighter note, Fenwick explains that the Major Histocompatability Complex could also help scientists understand the concept of "chemistry" in human mate selection. For decades, songwriters have asked questions like ''why do fools fall in love?" Though we are far from the answer, the Major Histocompatability complex provides an interesting angle to what causes that special feeling.

"Wolves have a sense for selecting mates to produce hybrid vigor for the pack. Humans may have this sense, too," Fenwick said.

December 2, 1997