Genetic Domestication

At one point, I was hoping to develop this idea into something patentable, but I lack the proper background.  So here it is for you and the rest of the internet to find and use.  I’d rather see the idea work than hold onto it.  First, some background. Those of you who watched Dogs That Changed the World will find some familiar information here, but my crazy proposal goes beyond it.

Wolves are a canid species, as are dogs.  Dogs are basically domesticated wolves, although there’s apparently no consensus on whether the selection was done by humans or by the wolves themselves, but we do know that there is a path from wolf to dog.  Wolf DNA and dog DNA are close enough that they can consistently breed and produce fertile wolfdog offspring, despite the fact that most dog breeds look very unlike wolves, and no dog breed behaves much like a wolf (at least in ways that determine their suitability as pets).  You also won’t find an adult wolf with traits such as floppy ears, “patchy” fur, blue eyes, or anything else we consider cute and doglike.

Another wild canid species is the fox.  Long ago, the animal portion of the Russian fur trade involved feeding and generally looking after lots of caged foxes prior to them being harvested for fur.  The problem was that foxes don’t like people very much, especially when the foxes are trapped in tiny cages, so they’d bite the workers any time they could.  The people in charge got the bright idea that they’d interbreed the foxes that attacked humans less so that the next generation of fur foxes would be easier to handle.  This process of breeding our aggression went very well and improved productivity, but then they hit a snag.  Several generations in, their fur foxes changed from a solid color to a black and white mix, which was simply no good for fur.  Many of them even ended up with floppy ears and blue eyes.  (Sound familiar?)  For more details, check out this video clip and these before and after pictures.

The foxes seemed to be domestication-ready just like wolves were.  Geneticists learned that in canids, genes that regulate certain appearance-related characteristics are associated with genes that regulate adrenal response.  Roughly speaking, this means that when one set of genes changes, it tends to drag another set of changed genes along with it.  This is why canids that look “cute” also tend to be docile because the genes that were selected for reduced adrenal response not only reduce the animal’s fear and aggression, but they’re tied to the “cute” genes.  This is why you tend to get docility along with “cuteness.”  Why we happen to think domesticated animals are cute is another question entirely, but it’s certainly useful that we associate a dog’s cuteness with docility.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the genetic basis of domestication in canids is either well established or could be, given a little effort.  I suspect it’d be possible to get a handle on a specific set of genetic changes that could turn any wild canid into a domesticated canid in a single generation, if gene therapy were used.  For canids, this might not be cost-effective, since it seems to be pretty easy to breed them into domestication in a few generations.  But maybe the process of genetically domesticating canids could be generalized to other animal families.  Like bears, lions, or tigers.

Pretend I’m not wearing my crazy man hat and hear me out.  There are species of bears and big cats that are threatened or endangered.  While we can try to save their habitats, a multi-pronged strategy seems to be less dangerous to me.  What if we could genetically domesticate bears and big cats?  People already attempt to keep big cats as pets, so there’s a demand for it.  Anyone who’s ever seen a baby polar bear could be persuaded to adopt one as a pet.  So why not create a pet breed for each endangered animal, encouraging people to adopt them as pets and get their numbers to grow?  When the time comes to introduce wild versions of them into their ancestral habitats, the genetic alteration could be reversed again in one generation.

If you still think I’m a crazy man, here are some data points that may convince you of the idea’s viability:

  • There are already more tigers in the US than there are in the wild, and not all of them are in zoos.
  • Only recently, a species of fox that lived on a Californian island dwindled down to 15 members.  There was a mad scramble to save them and breed them in captivity, which they ultimately did, but it was very expensive.
  • People try to own wild animals as pets anyway, so why not use their interest as a way of genetically banking wild animal DNA?  Just check YouTube for videos of pet foxes, pet anteaters, pet cougars, pet squirrels, pet monkeys, and so on.

16 thoughts on “Genetic Domestication”

  1. My hubby had a dog when he was a kid who was part wolf – she was apparently an amazing dog, and he still speaks of her with a great deal of love. It would be intriguing to see the same sort of thing with cats.

    Personally, if I could own a domesticated tiger (or tiger mix), I’d do it in a heartbeat. It’s the safety (and, well, legality) issues that prevent me. I’ve always thought they were the most incredibly beautiful animals.

  2. Could domesticated bears be used for farm labor, or are you only looking at the pet market? I would think it would be a little more difficult with larger breeds such as bears because the gestation and maturity cycles are longer than in smaller animals such as wolves and foxes.

    I would absolutely own a domesticated fox. That idea rocks.

  3. I suppose you could aim animals at the farm labor market, but I think bears might be too intelligent for farm work.

    It’s true that larger animals have longer gestation times, but there’s also evidence that just about every species has the genetic capacity to grow larger or smaller over many generations, based on their environment. In particular, pygmy species are often found on islands, where being small is advantageous. The same smallness could be selected or genetically set in species like tigers and bears, which would both reduce their size and gestation time. Then, if the time came to re-introduce them into the wild, the process could be reversed.

    It’s hard to resist the idea of a domesticated fox, isn’t it? 🙂

  4. You know it.

    If you were going to attempt something like this…from a business standpoint, how would you do it?

  5. For canids, it’d be pretty easy, and I think some people are already doing it the old-fashioned way by breeding animals that are the closest to what they want until they get it. That’s how I found those black&white foxes with blue eyes.

    For other animals, you’d first need a genetics lab to find the specific genes that change from wild to domesticated canids, then you’d need to try to find analogs in the species you were trying to genetically domesticate. Then you’d try retroviral treatments on zygotes to induce the changes and see what comes out the other end, and hope the mama cat/bear/velociraptor doesn’t eat it for smelling “wrong.” Repeat until you have an adult tiger who only wants to chase balls of yarn, or a bear who only eats pick-a-nick baskets.

  6. That’s not exactly what I was asking. You gave me the technical answer on how you would create the new breeds. I was looking more for how you would set things up business wise. What kind of business plan or model would you use to get things started? Would you even run it as a business? Would it be better to set up as a conservation non-profit?

  7. Ah, ok. I would start by getting in touch with pet stores, where people go to buy expensive dogs with official papers. See if they’d be interested in selling fox dogs or pygmy pet bears, tigers, or lions. I think the main hurdle would be in making the case that animals you provide are just as domesticated as cats, dogs, ferrets, etc. that you can buy in the same store. They’ll be afraid of lawsuits from animals acting unexpectedly (since there’s little cultural familiarity with how to interact with these animals, even if they’re domesticated) and diseases that might be transmitted from your animals to humans.

    These are valid concerns, so there may be some ground work in the form of hiring animal behaviorists to study the animals for a length of time to get a sense of their minds. As for diseases, these might already be known, and as long as they’re documented well enough, it should be no different than the diseases cats and dogs can carry and make humans sick.

    You could create lots of demand by donating fox dogs or your other pet animals to people who are a “social nexus,” such as celebrities, notable community members, etc. You could also contact Animal Planet to do a story on your work, thus raising awareness and creating demand for people who want to buy your animals from retailers.

  8. Sounds pretty reasonable to me…so now all you need is seed money to get started. I wonder if you could get a research grant of some sort.

  9. I think it’s a great idea to domesticate wild animals, especially using gene therapy for the larger cats and bears. I personally have wanted a pet fox for a long time and always thought it was kind of an unrealistic dream, but if you were able to do something similar to what the Russians did with foxes here in the U.S. I think you’d have a huge market for selling the pets whether you were able to partner with a big chain of pet stores or not.

  10. Wow, so maybe I’m not a crazy man 🙂 It sounds like there’d be a lot of interest in this sort of thing. Anyone know someone in the genetics field who’d be interested in a collaboration?

    1. True. There’s more of a potential market for pets than for training, but the process would have benefits for training. The question is: would genetically-domesticated tigers performing tricks draw the same number of customers as wild tigers?

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