60-Second Science

Dog Evolution Included Getting the Starch in

A comparison of the dog and wolf genomes finds that dogs have genetic changes that allow them to digest starches, which might have eased their way to becoming man's best friend. Karen Hopkin reports

When you think about dog food, you probably picture more meat than potato. But a new study finds that, unlike wolves, dogs have genes that allow them to digest starch. That evolutionary adaptation may have helped fuel their domestication. The report is in the journal Nature. [Eric Axelsson et al., The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet]

Dogs and wolves hail from a common canine ancestor. And though you can still see a strong resemblance, many traits distinguish the two today. Wolves have larger teeth and skulls than dogs do. And they’re far less likely to bring you your newspaper and slippers.

To figure out how such differences might have evolved, researchers compared the DNA of a dozen wolves and 14 different dog breeds, from cocker spaniels to German Shepherds. And they found 36 places where the dogs’ genes stray from those of the wolf. Some of these genes have to do with the brain, but a surprising number help pooches process carbs. [See also Kate Wong, Adaptation to Starchy Diet Was Key to Dog Domestication]

That metabolic trick may have made it easier for dogs to stomach hanging around with humans, particularly once people started farming. The leftover grains in the scrap heap may have attracted animals that, over time, evolved an ability to carbo-load. And ultimately convinced them to stay.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]

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