There is an ongoing revolution in medicine that is changing the way that veterinarians will be counselling clients regarding inherited disorders.
Clinical applications will emerge rapidly in veterinary medicine as we obtain new information from canine and comparative genome projects (Meyers-Wallen 2001: Relevance of the canine genome project to veterinary medical practice. International Veterinary Information Service, New York).
The canine genome project is described by three events: mapping markers on canine chromosomes, mapping gene locations on canine chromosomes (Breen et al. 2001: Genome Res. 11, 1784-1795), and obtaining the nucleotide sequence of the entire canine genome.
Information from such research has provided a few DNA tests for single gene mutations [Aguirre 2000: DNA testing for inherited canine diseases. In: Bonagura, J (ed), Current Veterinary Therapy XIII. Philadelphia WB Saunders Co, 909-913].
Eventually it will lead to testing of thousands of genes at a time and production of DNA profiles on individual animals. The DNA profile of each dog could be screened for all known genetic disease and will be useful in counselling breeders.
As part of the pre-breeding examination, DNA profiles of prospective parents could be compared, and the probability of offspring being affected with genetic disorders or inheriting desirable traits could be calculated.
Once we can examine thousands of genes of individuals easily, we have powerful tools to reduce the frequency of, or eliminate, deleterious genes from a population.
When we understand polygenic inheritance, we can potentially eliminate whole groups of deleterious genes from populations.
The effect of such selection on a widespread basis within a breed could rapidly improve health within a few generations.
However, until we have enough information on gene interaction, we will not know whether some of these genes have other functions that we wish to retain. And, other population effects should not be ignored.
At least initially it may be best to use this new genetic information to avoid mating combinations that we know will produce affected animals, rather than to eliminate whole groups of genes from a population.
This is particularly important for breeds with small gene pools, where it is difficult to maintain genetic diversity.
Finally, we will eventually have enough information about canine gene function to select for specific genes encoding desirable traits and increase their frequencies in a population.
This is similar to breeding practices that have been applied to animals for hundreds of years. The difference is that we will have a large pool of objective data that we can use rapidly on many individuals at a time.
This has great potential to improve the health of the dog population as a whole. However, if we or our breeder clients make an error, we can inadvertently cause harm through massive, rapid selection.
Therefore, we should probably not be advising clients on polygenic traits or recommend large scale changes in gene frequencies in populations until much more knowledge of gene interaction is obtained.
By then it is likely that computer modelling will be available to predict the effect of changing one or several gene frequencies in a dog population over time. And as new mutations are likely to arise in the future, these tools will be needed indefinitely to detect, treat and eliminate genetic disorders from dog populations.
Information available from genetic research will only be useful in improving canine health if veterinarians have the knowledge and skills to use it ethically and responsibly. There is not only a great potential to improve overall canine health through genetic selection, but also the potential to do harm if we fail to maintain genetic diversity.
Our profession must be in a position to correctly advise clients on the application of this information to individual dogs as well as to populations of dogs, and particularly purebred dogs.
James A. Baker Institute for Animal Health
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA