Cracking the dingo’s genetic code

An international research consortium led by La Trobe University has sequenced the genome of the pure Desert Dingo, revealing, for the first time, the evolutionary position of the mysterious Australian animal.

The role of dingoes in the ecosystem has been debated for years – with many scientists believing they are genetically the same as feral wild dogs.

Published today in Science Advances, the full genetic sequence of Sandy Maliki – a wild-born, pure Australian Desert Dingo – revealed that pure dingoes are an ‘intermediary’ between wolves and domestic dog breeds.

Senior author, Professor Bill Ballard from La Trobe University, said cracking the iconic Australian animal’s genetic code was a breakthrough for the researchers.

“It gives us much clearer insight into how the dingo evolved – which is fascinating from a scientific point of view, but also opens up all sorts of new ways to monitor their health, and ensure their long-term survival,” Professor Ballard said.

Professor Ballard said dingo survival is critical to maintaining a healthy and balanced ecosystem. “Dingoes are Australia’s ‘top order predator’, meaning they influence everything in their environment,” Professor Ballard said.

“If dingoes aren’t given the protection they deserve, it will upset the country’s ecological balance – potentially leading to environmental issues like erosion and species extinction.”

Professor Ballard said one of the key differences between dingoes and dogs is the number of copies of the pancreatic ‘amylase’ gene each has.

“A pure dingo has only one copy of the amylase gene, whereas domestic dogs have multiple copies – which we show influences the gut microbiome and, we predict, affects what dingoes eat,” Professor Ballard.

“Based on this new knowledge, we hypothesise that dingoes are far less likely to eat farm animals, including sheep. If we’re correct, what farmers currently assume are dingoes killing their stock, are likely to be feral wild dogs,” Professor Ballard said.

Sandy Malaki – the pure Desert Dingo that was part of the study – was discovered as a three-week old pup by a roadside in the central Australian desert near the Strzelecki Track, with her sister and brother.

Scientists lined up Sandy’s genome against a Greenland Wolf, and five domestic dog breeds including the German Shepherd, and the world’s oldest known dog breed, the Basenji.

The research project became possible after Sandy won the World’s Most Interesting Genome competition in 2017 – which was decided by public vote.

The five-year study was undertaken by a research consortium comprising experts in microbiology, computational biology and veterinary science, from 10 institutions across six countries – including Australia, Denmark, Norway, Germany, USA and England.

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