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Written By

Bianca de Loryn

Research Centre

Centre for Tropical Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology

Publish Date

26 February 2024

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The $10,000 dingo

As an expert in bioinformatics, Associate Professor Matt Field generally focuses on questions involving tropical diseases and personalised medicine. However, he recently took a detour into dingo DNA research and found information that could ultimately help dog owners have healthier dogs.

Matt Field works in bioinformatics, which looks at human or animal sequence (DNA) data in a similar way that programmers look at computer code. “I analyse big amounts of biological data, using computers and algorithms, and I try to solve a variety of biological problems, including things relevant to human diseases. But this is also increasingly being used for animals,” Matt says.

A few years ago, Professor Bill Ballard from UNSW told Matt about an exciting project he led that focused on the origins of dogs, and specifically the Australian dingo. “Bill and his team were using an unusual variety of cutting edge technologies to sequence the first complete dingo genome,” Matt says, adding that a genome is another word for a complete DNA sequence.

“I knew how rare, and expensive, it was to incorporate five different technologies like they were doing. That was really exciting for me, and I agreed to join the project.”

The dingo that donated the blood sample for this research was a purebred desert dingo called Sandy. Sandy had been rescued as a pup, together with her two siblings, in South Australia.

All in all, Matt estimates that sequencing Sandy’s genome with five different technologies cost around $10,000. However, Bill’s team won a prize for the world’s most interesting genome which cut the cost for the sequencing.

“Given no technology is perfect, we wanted to combine several of the best options to make sure we got the highest quality genome we could get,” Matt says. “We wanted to use Sandy as a sort of gold standard for future studies.”

“In fact, at the time we released Sandy’s genome, it was the best dog genome assembly in the world, for any kind of dog ever,” Matt says. “The previous gold standard from a boxer breed was built solely with older sequencing technologies, and so it had around 20,000 gaps of missing sequence. In comparison, ours had less than a hundred such gaps.”

Sandy the dingo.
Matt Field.
Matt Field and Sandy the dingo, aged three weeks (supplied).

Comparing breed dogs and dingo genomes

Matt says that the initial reason for the team to generate a complete dingo genome was to compare dingo DNA with modern and ancient breed dogs to find out how closely related they are.

There was only one problem: the single dog genome available at the time wasn’t good enough to compare it with Sandy’s. “So, actually, even before starting this project, we had to sequence the genome of two breed dogs: the German Shepherd, a modern breed created in 1899, and the Basenji, an ancient breed from Central Africa,” Matt says.

Because researchers in his field typically share their data, Matt was able to incorporate genomes from other research teams as well. “While we were working on the dingo, German Shepherd and Basenji genomes, other groups started doing the same thing for the Greenland wolf and several dog breeds, such as the golden retriever and the boxer. So, in the end, we had about eight different high quality genomes we could work with,” Matt says.

“We were finally able to compare these genomes. By measuring their differences you can approximate how related they are, as these differences accumulate over time.”

Matt was excited to see that the data showed the dingo is an early offshoot of modern breed dogs. “Our data clearly shows that you have your ancient wolf ancestor, you have your modern-day wolf, and you have the breed dogs that are all very recent,” Matt says. “The dingo branched off first from the wolves, then the Basenji, and very recently we have all modern breed dogs.”

Getting to the guts of it

Matt says another motivation for the group in looking at dingo DNA was to verify Charles Darwin’s theories in regard to animal domestication. “The idea Darwin came up with was that there's different stages of domestication that don't just happen as if there's a switch. There is a sort of a grey area where animals are semi-domesticated,” Matt says. “Using this new genome, we were hoping that we might be able to see whether dingos represent one of these in-between stages of domestication.

“For example, there is this gene called Amylase 2B in most animals that helps with digesting starchy products like rice, food scraps and things like that,” Matt says.

When humans started to domesticate dogs roughly 30,000 years ago, they also changed their diet by feeding them food scraps. “Over time, breed dogs have developed a large number of copies of Amylase 2B, whereas wolves only have one copy of this gene because they don't eat a lot of starchy foods,” Matt says. “Some modern dogs have up to about 20 copies of this gene, and we confirmed that the dingo only had one copy, just like a wolf.”

While this points to a lack of domestication, Matt says that there is still a possibility that the ancestors of dingos may have been domesticated or semi-domesticated before they were brought to Australia by Asian seafarers around five to eight thousand years ago.

“We need more sets of older genomes before we can start to think about answering that question,” Matt says. “But it is likely that they haven't been domesticated after they arrived in Australia.”

New Guinea Singing Dog.
New Guinea singing dogs (left) and a Basenji (right).

Why dingos matter for dog health

For non-scientists, it might not appear too important to know where a dingo fits on the family tree of wolves and breed dogs. But the findings of the dingo team could be significant for future dog health.

“Over the last few hundred years, people began crossing dog breeds in order to enhance certain traits or characteristics. However, as a result breed dogs have accumulated lots of new mutations that aren't necessarily good for the dogs,” Matt says. “For example, lots of large dog breeds have problems with their hips, terriers have problems with blindness and retrievers have problems with cancer. This is a direct result of the artificial selection process.

“The dingo doesn’t have these problems, meaning we could use the dingo genome as a healthy baseline when looking at individual dogs,” Matt says. “We could use the dingo to find differences with breeds to help determine what might be contributing to a certain disease.”

Matt says that this mirrors the current developments within individualised treatments, or ‘precision medicine’, in humans. “You could use the dingo genome to figure out exactly what mutations are causing the disease in your dog and potentially develop therapies based on that,” Matt says.

The importance of team work

Matt says that while it is now known where the dingo sits relative to modern dogs, their relationship to ancient breed dogs remains unclear.

“More data and information are needed to really start to tease that apart,” Matt says. “There are a lot of other ancient breed dogs, such as the New Guinea singing dog. We need to find out where the dingo sits in the family tree with regard to those.”

Projects like this show that some questions require time, patience, cutting-edge technologies and good teamwork until they are answered. But with a team of researchers spanning five countries working on this task, they are confident that they will eventually find out more about the mysterious evolutionary history of the dingo.

Matt is currently looking for aspiring bioinformaticians looking to complete a Masters or a PhD based in Cairns. Find out more on Matt’s researcher page.

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