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2021 Year in Review: Discoveries in Dog Science


2021 year in review with dog wearing 2021 glasses against black background

2021 was a great year for dog lovers and dog scientists alike. In our 2021 year in review, we dive into some of the big moments that happened in dog genetics this year. 

Scientists made lots of discoveries about dog DNA, like the first Basenji dog genome, how puppies are wired to respond to humans, and the truth about dingoes in Australia. But there’s so much more—like what dire wolves were like, the mysteries of coat color, and some big discoveries that might help us prevent disease in dogs.

A glimpse into the lives of ancient dogs and wolves

Scientists uncovered a lot of new information about ancient dogs in 2021.

Do you remember dire wolves from the hit TV show Game of Thrones? Well, they were real. Scientists sequenced the entire dire wolf genome in 2021. And what they found was a surprise! It turns out dire wolves are not just a different species—they are an entirely different genus (one category bigger than species). The dire wolf is the only species in that genus.

Fun fact: Did you know that the two dogs who played the dire wolves on Game of Thrones were Embark tested? See Odin and Thor’s Embark results and learn more about the history of dire wolves.

Dire wolves split off from other canids about 5.7 million years ago. They were genetically isolated and did not interbreed with wolves, dogs, or other species. Scientists also suggest that dire wolves originated in North America. That’s different from gray wolves and coyotes, whose ancestors evolved in Eurasia and then came to North America.

Speaking of how dogs came to the Americas, we learned a lot this year about where ancient dogs traveled. Ancient DNA, plus today’s advanced DNA technology, can tell us a lot.

One study this year found that dogs and people left Eurasia together and crossed over the Bering Land Bridge to the Americas. These dogs are sometimes called “Siberian dogs.” Another group of scientists found that Siberian dog ancestry was shaped in part by early trade networks. As early indigenous Americans traded with people from other parts of the world, Siberian dogs met other dogs, too. 

A 10,000-year-old dog bone was found in a cave in Alaska. At first, scientists thought the bone came from a bear. After looking at DNA from the bone, they found that the bear was actually a dog. It turned out to be the oldest known dog in the Americas—and a genetic cousin of those early Siberian dogs. What happened to the descendants of these Siberian dogs remains a mystery. There’s little to no DNA evidence left of them in North American dogs today.

Many of these discoveries confirmed something we already suspected: dog migration patterns follow human migration. Wherever ancient humans went throughout history, we brought our dogs with us.

Learn more about ancient dogs in the Americas by reading about Xolos and their ancestry, which can be traced back to the Aztecs.

What gives dogs their colorful coats?

2021 was a big year for brand-new discoveries that help us understand how genes affect coat color and patterning in dogs.

Scientists at Embark discovered the gene behind “roaning,” a subtle spotting pattern in dogs and horses that acts as nature’s camouflage. This unique genetic discovery might also tell us about how Dalmatians get their famous spots.

The Embark team also uncovered how genes can influence how much red pigment is in a dog’s coat. Breeds like German Pinschers and Irish Setters often have this red coat color. Embark found that five places in the genome control how intense that red color is. With this genetic information, we can predict coat color intensity with high accuracy, including in breeds like the Golden Retriever, where the amount of red can be very different from dog to dog.

Fun fact: This discovery helped us decode Clifford, the Big Red Dog. Check it out and see what gives Clifford his bright red coat and huge size!

Another wolf-related discovery: scientists found that the variation in dogs’ coat color likely came from wolves. This finding completely changed our understanding of dog coat color. We used to think that the genetic variation in coat colors came from human influences and breeding. Now, we know that a lot of those coat colors likely came from wolves, way before dogs were domesticated.

Discoveries that help all dogs live healthy lives

At Embark, our mission is to extend dogs’ lives by ending preventable disease—which is why we’re excited that scientists found so many clues this year that can help us better understand the genetics of disease.

Cancer prevention

Cancer is one of the most common diseases affecting dogs today. Up to one in three dogs will develop cancer in their lifetime. The good news is that many cancers are treatable if they are caught early, and science can help us prevent some types of cancer.

In 2021, two different groups of scientists found genes associated with a risk for immune-related cancer in several dog breeds. These breeds include Bernese Mountain Dogs, Rottweilers, Flat-Coated Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers. The same kind of cancer also affects humans. Their discovery could help scientists understand human and canine cancer better, leading to better prevention or treatment for both us and our dogs.

Hip dysplasia

Scientists also made huge progress this year in understanding hip dysplasia, a common condition that affects many dogs. They looked at 46 genetic markers that might be involved in the disease. With more research, we might be able to understand and maybe even prevent canine hip dysplasia.

Blindness and deafness

A few more dog health discoveries that happened this year: scientists found a couple of genes associated with blindness and deafness in dogs. Researchers in Helsinki found a new blindness gene, IFT122 and a mutation in the LOXHD1 gene that leads to hearing loss in Rottweilers. Both of these genes might be related to blindness and deafness in humans, too.

There is still much more to discover about genetic health risks in dogs and how to prevent diseases. At Embark, we’re doing original research to find the causes of these diseases. Pet parents, breeders, and veterinarians make our research possible by contributing health information about their dogs.

Want to help us improve the health of all dogs? It’s easy—just sign in to your account and fill out the health surveys. Thank you for doing your part to help all dogkind!

Our 2021 year in review covers only a fraction of the important work scientists did this year. Our hope is that 2022 will unlock even more discoveries that can help dogs have long, healthy, happy lives.

Mimi Padmabandu Contributor

Mimi Padmabandu is a scientific writer and Content Strategy Lead at Embark Veterinary. She has over a decade of experience writing about science and genomics for leading biotechnology companies. She holds a bachelor's degree in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology from UCLA and a master’s degree in Early Modern English Literature from King’s College London.

Read more about Mimi Padmabandu

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