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Ancient dogs’ diet holds key to their domestication

Thursday January 24th, 2013

By DogTime Staff

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Unlike wolves, dogs developed certain changes to their starch and sugar-processing genes, giving them the ability to eat starchy foods and carbohydrates.

Scientists have long known that the domestic dog evolved from the wolf, but they could never pinpoint exactly what changed in the wolf that turned him into man’s best friend — until now.

Researchers at Sweden’s Uppsala University have discovered that the key to canine evolution lies in something unexpected: cereal.

Using a side-by-side comparison of the genomes of wolves and the genomes of the domestic dog, Uppsala scientists discovered one striking difference. While the carnivorous wolf is only able to properly digest meat, dogs developed certain changes to their starch and sugar-processing genes, giving them the ability to eat starchy foods and carbohydrates — just like the human beings they started to join.

Study researcher and evolutionary geneticist Erik Axelsson was amazed to learn the tie between humans and dogs is so strong that both species even started to develop the same eating habits over time.

“That food was obviously the same kind of food that we were eating,” Axelsson explained, including root plants, porridge, meat, marrow, and possibly even bread.

“All dogs studied have this change, which I’d say puts it at least a couple of thousand years back in time,” Axelsson tells NBC News.

The study indicates food may have been what brought our two species together, but it also shows what humans and dogs have in common. Axelsson explained that human beings underwent a similar genetic change as our diet became more agricultural.

“I think it is a striking case of co-evolution,” said Axelsson. “The face that we shared a similar environment in the last 10,000 years caused a similar adaptation. And the big change in the environment was the development of agriculture.”

“It’s cool that we’ve shared an environment for such a long time and we’ve eaten the same kind of food for such a long time, that we have started to become more similar in that way,” Axelsson added.

Along with the changes in diet, the domestic dog also developed changes in behavior, according to the Uppsala study. The researchers found evidence of differences between wolves and domestic dogs when it comes to brain development and overall brain function, but those results still require a full analysis.

For more information on the findings of this landmark study, check out the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature.

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