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Published: Sunday, 7/15/2007

DNA pinpoints pooch pedigrees

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER
Rudi's uncertain parentage may soon be revealed from a DNA test that's becoming popular with pet owners who want to learn more about their animals. Mike Bartell got Rudi from a pet adoption agency. Rudi's uncertain parentage may soon be revealed from a DNA test that's becoming popular with pet owners who want to learn more about their animals. Mike Bartell got Rudi from a pet adoption agency.
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Rudi's ears look like they can pick up signals from other planets. They stand at attention, fringed by fine strands of fur like so many sensitive antennae.

For Mike Bartell, wandering from cage to cage at a pet adopt-athon, Rudi's ears were not just receiving - they were transmitting. And before that Saturday in June was over, he had a new dog.

"It was the ears," said Mr. Bartell, the night city editor at The Blade. "I was kind of taken with him."

Then, his curiosity got the better of him. What was this bouncing dog who followed him through the house? He started searching the Internet, looking at various breed mixes. None of them looked quite like Rudi, with his long silky fur and his intelligent amber-brown eyes.

Shepherd-Doberman mix, he guessed. No, maybe collie-shepherd. Could there be some border collie in there?

In a few weeks, Mr. Bartell will have an answer. He sent Rudi's genes to a company that can compare them against the genes of 36 breeds. If those breeds are in Rudi's family tree, the $65 test will show it.

While prime-time crime shows have made human DNA analysis seem as common as Starbucks, parsing the animal genome for curiosity and profit is a newer venture.

MetaMorphix Inc., the company working up Rudi's DNA, began offering the service in February, putting to use the genetic expertise that the company gained in cattle. A second company, MARS Inc., is bringing a similar product to market this month.

Sue DeNise, the vice president of genomic research for MMI Genomics, a wholly owned subsidiary of MetaMorphix, said the company's work in beef cattle led it to the doghouse.

MMI had identified genetic markers that indicated beef quality. Without making a single cut, the genes reveal which cattle are most richly marbled, which have melt-in-the-mouth texture. By collecting the genomes of thousands of cattle, the company could associate specific traits with very small differences in DNA.

The company's success in beef led it to do the same thing in swine. And now it's moving into genetic chicken picking.

Determining dog breeds is far simpler.

"The reason we knew this would work is we had this huge association study [associating genetic markers with specific traits in cattle] and thought, wouldn't it be interesting to split out cattle by their breeds? We tried it and it worked beautifully," Ms. DeNise said.

"At the time, I was kind of a nonbeliever," she said. But this was convincing. The next step was simple, "We said, 'Hey, we could do this in dogs.' "

The company had ample experience with dog genetics. It conducts dog DNA studies for the American Kennel Club and other groups. After studying hundreds of DNA samples from many dog breeds, and analyzing public dog gene databases, MMI researchers came up with 96 genetic markers for the 36 breeds they can detect now.

This fall, they intend to expand the test to cover 116 breeds.

Mr. Bartell took Rudi to see Dr. Suzanne Savage two weeks ago to collect Rudi's DNA, although veterinary assistance isn't a requirement.

While he held his squirming, yelping puppy - "you would have thought we were killing him," Mr. Bartell said - the vet took a small brush and wiped it across the inside of Rudi's cheek.

She was harvesting cells. She put the brush - no touching, DNA samples are remarkably easy to contaminate - into a small mailing tube. Mr. Bartell sent it off to the Davis, Calif., lab of MetaMorphix Inc.

Sometime in August, he should know where Rudi got those crazy ears.

Lois Minton, a fourth-grade teacher from Cincinnati, used the genetic test for her dog Mattie. She hoped that knowing the breed might provide clues to her behavior.

Mattie was afraid of everyone. If anyone came to the house, she was mortified. She hid behind bushes barren of leaves, hoping she wouldn't be noticed. She never wagged her tail.

"I was having a real hard time bonding with this dog," Ms. Minton said.

Ms. Minton hired a trainer to help. The trainer said, "•'Oh forget it. There's no hope,' and I burst into tears."

A pet adoption agency told Ms. Minton that Mattie was part keeshond. Her keeshond, Marley, had died not long before Mattie's picture popped up on a dog adoption Web site.

Ms. Minton happened to mention her problems with Mattie - and her wish to know Mattie's breed - during a visit with former high school classmates from Wilmington, a town northeast of Cincinnati. Among those classmates was Sue DeNise of MMI.

"I can tell you what breed your dog is," Ms. DeNise told her.

"I was so darn excited!"

Turned out, there was no keeshond in Mattie. She was mostly chow, with a bit of Shar-Pei.

It probably has nothing to do with the new genetic knowledge, but Ms. Minton and Mattie are finally friends.

"After two and a half years, that dog has finally started to bond with me," she said. "She's actually starting to wag her tail."

There is little scientific reason to climb the family tree of your mixed breed dog, said Dr. Timothy Mason of the Lewis Animal Hospital, 5104 Lewis Ave.

About the best reason he can imagine involves the rare genetic diseases that tend to show up in certain breeds - hip dysplasia in German shepherds and other large breeds, Addison's disease in standard poodles, blindness in Irish setters.

"We had a client who always thought they had a chow mix. The dog came down with degenerative mylopathy, essentially MS in dogs. It's only seen in German shepherds," Dr. Mason said. "So in that sense, I could see a little bit of value, but at the same time, it is so rare."

In fact, mixed breed dogs are at considerably lower risk of these genetic diseases. Ailments like degenerative mylopathy arise because of too-close breeding - exactly the opposite of what makes a mutt a mutt.

"DNA testing used to be a lot harder," Dr. Mason said. "As technology is advancing, it's a lot easier, and now things are becoming available that are purely entrepreneurial. It's basically a way for someone to make some money."

While he'd help people who wanted their dogs tested, he's not recommending it.

"I'd be happy to do it, but to me it's folly. Take yourself out to a nice dinner instead," he said.

Randy Smith, an account manager for DDC Veterinary in Fairfield, Ohio, near Cincinnati, said his company isn't convinced of the accuracy of breed tests.

The company does dog paternity testing, and testing for certain genetic diseases in dogs, cats, and horses. It also uses gene tests to determine bird sex.

"We field these questions every day, all day," Mr. Smith said. "It is our view at this point that the testing is not at the level of paternity testing, meaning it's not definitive and won't hold up in court."

Ms. DeNise of MMI said while the company has demonstrated the accuracy of its testing in purebred dogs, it has not published accuracy data in mixed breeds.

"All we can talk about is how accurate this is in purebreds," she said.

It's difficult to create a control condition for mixed-breed dogs, except perhaps through designer dogs with known mixed-breed parentage, such as labradoodles and golden doodles - mixes of Labradors and golden retrievers with standard poodles.

The test is not perfect because of the history of certain breeds.

"Some breeds don't work as well as others. They're not as ancient as others," she said.

If a dog comes from a long line of mutts, its genetic background may be too muddy to sort.

"If you have a Heinz 57 mutt, the background breeds get diluted pretty quickly," Ms. DeNise wrote in an e-mail. "It depends upon the actual breeds in the mix [some breeds are more easily characterized], the number of generations from a purebred [you lose half of the genetic material with every generation of outcrossing], and the type of breeding program [focused on a few breeds or lots of crossing]."

Some 1,500 purebred dogs were used to create the genetic markers for the 38 breeds currently tested. About 4,000 dogs provide the database for the 116 breeds the company will soon offer.

The MARS test advertises 99 percent accuracy, but again Mr. Smith notes that research has never been published.

"That's never really been tested, and there's never been a paper written. The DNA tests we perform are all based on a scientific paper that can be tested by anyone," Mr. Smith said.

He imagines a situation where breed testing is used to determine whether a mixed-breed dog is suspected of being a "dangerous dog breed" - legislation enforced in many areas.

Because breed testing does not have published data behind it, it could not be used to solve disputes in the courtroom, he said.

Dog paternity testing, however, is as solid as human paternity testing, which is admissible in court.

Clint Smith of Black Hawk, S.D., is grateful for that.

Two and a half years ago, someone stole his favorite hunting dog, a chocolate Labrador retriever named Fudge.

"I was 99.9 percent sure it was the ex-girlfriend," he said. She worked for him at the hunting lodge he owned at the time. He'd let her use Fudge on occasion, so the dog was accustomed to her. But he couldn't prove anything.

"I immediately got ahold of the guy I bought him from," he said. He sent DNA from Fudge's parents to the Ohio genetics lab, DDC Veterinary, "just in case I ever come across him."

Then the girlfriend broke up with another guy. In the course of their conversations, the new ex-boyfriend confirmed what Mr. Smith suspected all along.

The police seized the dog from a hunting lodge where the girlfriend had taken it. They took a cheek swab, and a little while later, Clint Smith was retrieving his dog.

It had been a long time. Would Fudge remember him?

"I drove three hours Sunday morning to pick him up, and his paws and head and chest were on my lap the whole way back."

It doesn't matter if the breed evidence meets courtroom accuracy standards to a lot of people.

Lucy White, the owner of the Toledo dog-sitting service, Puppypals, is foster "mom" to a lot of mixed-breed dogs before they're adopted through Planned Pethood. She thinks people might be more willing to adopt dogs if they could have some assurance of breed.

"We get a lot of large dogs. People don't train their large dogs, and at eight months to a year when they're really obnoxious," owners will give their dogs up for adoption. These dogs need intensive training, and they're hard to find homes for.

"If people think it's a breed that might be hard to handle, it takes us a little longer to find a home. If we could tell them it was not a Rottweiler, but a mix of some kind of spaniel or hunting dog, as opposed to a guard-dog breed, that might help us adopt them faster."

Plus, knowing the breed provides some clues to behavior.

Ms. White ended up adopting one of her foster dogs, a gruff charmer named Vinny with remarkable fence-jumping abilities.

"I'd kind of like to know what Vinny is. I believe Vinny is a husky mix because of his marking. Huskies are bred for generations and generations to run and pull. It doesn't surprise me he likes to spend hours and hours a day pulling. This is who this guy is."

Dr. Savage says knowing the breed might help people know what to expect when they adopt a new dog.

"I have known many a person who adopted a dog thinking this is going to be a 30-pound dog, and lo and behold, it ends up 60 pounds, and it's a big surprise," she said. "There is definite value there with the mixed-breed dog and adoptions.

"I don't know if it's something these adoption places are going to be able to afford. But in a perfect world, it would be a wonderful thing."

Contact Jenni Laidman

at: jenni@theblade.com

or 419-724-6507.



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