Give a Dog a Genome

Give a Dog a Genome, an initiative launched by the Kennel Club Genetics Centre at the AHT, aims to create the UK’s largest canine genome bank to help generations of dogs.

By sequencing the entire genome (all 2.4 billion letters of DNA) of a large number of different breeds, we will radically increase our understanding of the canine genome and improve dog health.

DNA testing is an important way to help breed healthier, happier dogs. We develop and sell DNA tests, with all the profits re-invested into more research to help more dogs. Give a Dog a Genome is a pioneering project which is helping us do this.

DNA tests can help eradicate specific inherited diseases from a breed by enabling breeders to carefully select which dogs to breed from based on whether they are affected, a carrier or clear of a specific inherited disease. In most cases the disease-causing mutation is recessive, meaning carriers can be safely bred to clear dogs, thus keeping the breed’s gene pool as diverse as possible. If simple breeding ‘rules’ are followed affected puppies can be easily avoided, although some carriers may be produced. This is not a problem – carriers will not develop the disease themselves, but any carriers that will be bred from in the future will also need DNA testing so that two carriers are not bred together.

Our research develops these tests by studying the DNA of dogs known to be affected with a disease, such as progressive retinal atrophy or glaucoma, and studying the DNA of dogs known to be clear of the disease. Once a mutation is identified and its function is scientifically proven, a DNA test is developed and sold through our DNA Testing Service, which sells over 10,000 DNA tests a year.

Give a Dog a Genome is truly exciting. It represents an unprecedented initiative to utilise the latest DNA sequencing technology available to improve the health of all pure bred dogs and countless future generations of dogs.

Dr Cathryn Mellersh, Head of Canine Genetics

Researching the canine genome

Give a Dog a Genome is a pioneering project which is making the genetic mutation-finding process quicker and more efficient by creating a ‘canine genome bank’, so that we can develop more DNA tests and help even more dogs. Using new whole genome sequencing technology to sequence the genome (all the DNA required to ‘make a dog’, of which there are 2.4 billion letters of DNA!) of 85 different dogs (from 77 different breeds in total) these data make up the UK’s largest canine genome bank.

Once fully analysed by our team, all of this information will significantly further our understanding of which changes in the canine genome are neutral and which have a negative effect on dog health, aiding all future canine genetics research projects. This is already helping to speed up our research and will be a permanent resource which will help other researchers around the world, as we publish what we learn. Give a Dog a Genome launched in 2016 with significant funding from the Kennel Club Charitable Trust.

All of the breeds involved in the project have completed a health questionnaire and submitted a DNA sample to be whole genome sequenced and included in the project. The idea is that the more whole genome samples we have that we know have been analysed in detail, the more information we have to help us find new disease-causing mutations. All of the samples have been sequenced and are now ready for analysis. Even with sophisticated computer technology it will take us years to fully analyse all of the whole genome sequence data, as each genome is 2.4 billion letters long which, if read like a book, would be equivalent to reading the Harry Potter series 440 times per genome!

The Kennel Club Charitable Trust agreed additional funding to enable the AHT to create the canine genome bank and develop more DNA tests to help even more dogs. The project, which became known as Give a Dog a Genome (GDG), received huge support from breed communities, and very quickly 75 breeds were signed up to complete health questionnaires and provide DNA samples to be whole genome sequenced.

By gaining a wealth of new information about the canine genome, from a vast number of breeds, the project aimed to make the process of finding genetic mutations even more effective and efficient in the future.

Dr Mellersh, added: “At the time, and even more so now, we felt GDG had unprecedented potential. Through this we can have a substantial impact on the health and welfare of purebred dogs. The GDG project is another excellent example of the pioneering work which has come out of The Kennel Club and AHT partnership.”

By the end of 2018, 89 dogs from 77 breeds had been sequenced, and their data added to what has now become the UK’s largest canine genome bank. Now, the AHT’s scientists need to analyse all of the whole genome sequence data – with each genome being 2.4 billion letters long, if you read it like a book, it would be equivalent to reading the Harry Potter series 440 times per genome!

Once fully analysed, this information will significantly aid future canine genetics research – at the AHT and around the world, as the charity publishes what it learns.

Of the 77 breeds sequenced, Shetland Sheepdogs are one of the first breeds to benefit directly from the GDG project. Breeders of these dogs were concerned about another blinding condition called progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), which is found in the breed.

By comparing the whole genome sequence of a single PRA-affected Sheltie to the GDG bank of genomes from other breeds, the AHT has identified one variant in a retinal gene that causes a novel type of PRA in this breed. A DNA test was launched on 5 March 2020.