Dog colour patterns explained

Scientists have unraveled the enigma of inheritance of coat color patterns in dogs. The researchers discovered that a genetic variant responsible for a very light coat in dogs and wolves originated more than two million years ago in a now extinct relative of the modern wolf.

Credit: University of Bern

The Institute of Genetics of the University of Bern has worked on understanding dog colour patterns and discovered that the gene responsible for a very light coat in wolves originated more than 2 million years ago which is now extinct. Wolves and dogs can make two different types of pigment, the black one, called eumelanin and the yellow, pheomelanin. A precisely regulated production of these two pigments at the right time and at the right place on the body gives rise to very different coat colour patterns. Prior to the study, four different patterns had been recognized in dogs and several genetic variants had been theorized which cause these patterns. During the formation of coat color, the so-called agouti signaling protein represents the body’s main switch for the production of yellow pheomelanin. If the agouti signaling protein is present, the pigment producing cells will synthesize yellow pheomelanin. If no agouti signaling protein is present, black eumelanin will be formed.

For the first time, the researchers characterized these two promoters in detail, in hundreds of dogs. They discovered two variants of the ventral promoter. One of the variants conveys the production of normal amounts of agouti signaling protein. The other variant has higher activity and causes the production of an increased amount of agouti signaling protein. The researchers even identified three different variants of the hair cycle-specific promoter. Starting with these variants at the individual promoters, the researchers identified a total of five different combinations, which cause different coat colour patterns in dogs.

Source (University of Bern. “Genetic enigma solved: Inheritance of coat color patterns in dogs.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 August 2021.)

Original paper: Bannasch, D.L., Kaelin, C.B., Letko, A., Loechel, R., Hug, P., Jagannathan, V., Henkel, J., Roosje, P., Hytönen, M.K., Lohi, H. and Arumilli, M., 2021. Dog colour patterns explained by modular promoters of ancient canid origin. Nature ecology & evolution, pp.1-9.