Genetic alterations and the domestication of animals has stumped scientists for years. The question was what genetic changes happened to transform wild animals into domesticated animals? It took an international team studying rabbit domestication for the clues to be unlocked.

In the latest issue of Science, researchers sequenced the genome of one domesticated rabbit, and sampled the DNA from six additional breeds and 14 wild rabbit pools across Spain and southern France.

Why rabbits? It’s a fairly recent domestication, and researchers can easily trace the wild rabbit relatives of the domesticated rabbits. Rabbits started to be domesticated around 1,400 years ago. No word on if the Easter Bunny is domesticated or a wild, corporate shill.

What they found is that there isn’t a smoking gun ‘domesticated gene’. Study co-author Namil Rafati spoke during the Biology of Genomes meeting. “We did not find any evidence for key domestication genes. We propose that they may not exist.”

The big find was the number of allele frequency shifts. When comparing the genomes of a wild and domesticated rabbit, the frequency of certain genes varied. The most common area of the changes were in the genes that affected brain development.

Also found when comparing the genomes is that the ‘wild genes’ were still present in the domesticated breeds. Essentially you could release the rabbits back into the wild, and eventually back selection of genes would occur. Think of it like a Mad Max scenario. Our pets would eventually revert to wild animals. That’s what these researchers are theorizing.

So, while scientists have searched for the one gene that provided the ‘on/off’ switch for domestication, it is actually all in the regulation of the genes. It isn’t some severe cutoff that provides the delineation. Instead, it is over the regulation and many small mutations of the animal’s genome.

The full piece is in the latest issue of Science.


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