Previous Editorial Board Member’s Choice

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Editorial Board Member’s Choice

by Lars Podsiadlowski

Genetics and animal domestication: new windows on an elusive process
K. Dobney and G. Larsen, 2006, J. Zoology, 269:261-271

The domestication of wild animals was not only a crucial achievement in human prehistory: starting with Darwin, it has also served as an illustration of the evolutionary changes which selection can cause. Even today, in the genomic age, artificial selection is an important topic in evolutionary biology. In this review, K. Dobney and G. Larsen summarise several important studies from past and present research and raise important questions for future work.

Darwin noticed the conspicuous morphological and physiological similarities between domesticated animals from different species – and the similarity of the morphological and physiological changes that domesticated animals have undergone relative to their wild counterparts, such as the appearance of dwarf and giant varieties, piebald colour and even floppy ears. Subsequent studies have demonstrated that complex genetic networks control almost every aspect of an organism, e.g. selection for behavioural traits also alters morphology: Belyaev’s fox-farm experiment, dating back to the 1950s, in which the previously undomesticated silver fox was selected for tameness, led him to suggest that tiny genetic changes affecting the balance of hormones and neurochemicals may be the cause for some of the characters shared in various domesticated mammalian species: fascinatingly, a suite of characters not selected for, including piebald coats and dropping ears, also appeared in the foxes. Probably, comparative genomic and transcriptional analyses of domesticated animals and their wild counterparts will provide more and more important insights into the developmental and genomic control of morphological and behavioural changes in general.

Dobney and Larsen’s review addresses another important issue in the reconstruction of the history of domestication for individual species. The time and place of domestication and the wild ancestors of domesticated animals can now be estimated with molecular data. However, the authors also demonstrate that some results, like the dating of domestication with molecular clocks, have to be interpreted with caution. Complex histories of domestication are revealed in some studies with dogs and cattle, and many questions are still unresolved, requiring larger datasets of different genomic sources (and probably also from ancient samples).

All in all this is an excellent review, illuminating many different aspects of the biology of domestication and giving a broad overview of the relevant literature. In addition the authors provide important hints to open questions and further topics to be studied in this field. It is apparent that many results of modern domestication research may serve as good models in understanding fundamental principles of evolution – just as they did in Darwin’s time.

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