Dog lovers and dating

It's an unusually balmy mid-February afternoon in New York City, but the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania is teeming with fur coats.The wearers are attendees of what is undoubtedly the world's elite canine mixer, one that takes place each year on the eve of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.Height in humans, for instance, is determined by the interaction of some 200 gene regions. The answer, the researchers say, lies in their unusual evolutionary history.Canines were the earliest domesticated animal, a process that started somewhere between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago, most likely when gray wolves began scavenging around human settlements.The same holds true across every breed and almost every physical trait.In a project called Can Map, a collaboration among Cornell University, UCLA, and the National Institutes of Health, researchers gathered DNA from more than 900 dogs representing 80 breeds, as well as from wild canids such as gray wolves and coyotes.

The breeders gave no thought, of course, to the fact that while coaxing such weird new dogs into existence, they were also tinkering with the genes that determine canine anatomy in the first place­.

They found that body size, hair length, fur type, nose shape, ear positioning, coat color, and the other traits that together define a breed's appearance are controlled by somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 genetic switches.

The difference between floppy and erect ears is determined by a single gene region in canine chromosome 10, or CFA10. Flip a few switches, and your dachshund becomes a Doberman, at least in appearance. "The story that is emerging," says Robert Wayne, a biologist at UCLA, "is that the diversity in domestic dogs derives from a small genetic tool kit." Media reports about the gene for red hair, alcoholism, or breast cancer give the false impression that most traits are governed by just one or a few genes.

But a different gene was the culprit in schnauzers than in poodles, giving researchers some specific leads for where to start looking in humans.

Meanwhile a recent study of a rare type of epilepsy in dachshunds found what appears to be a unique genetic signature, which could shed new light on the disorder in us as well.

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A basset hound aims a droopy eye across a luggage cart at a wired-up terrier.

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