Science on Saturday: Dogs and humans with Williams Syndrome

Feb 11, 2023, 9:30 am11:00 am
Online via Zoom & in person at PPPL


Deedee Ortiz
General Public
Event Description

Bridgett vonHoldt, Princeton University

Abstract: “In 2017, my team discovered that dogs and humans with Williams Syndrome share a handful of genetic variants that both are connected to friendliness. This sharing goes even further where the same genes carry these variants across the two species, indicating a shared common genetic mechanism. Williams Syndrome is diagnosed when people are missing a large chunk of DNA, composed of ~27 genes, and produces a suite of mental and physical traits, which includes a bubbly, extroverted personality. Of these 27 genes, a handful appear to be critical for the Syndrome to manifest and also found to be altered in the most social of dogs and gray wolves when it comes to their distractibility for humans. While dogs are more human-sociable than the average wolf, there is still variation between individual canines. While William Syndrome is due to a large deletion that removes these genes, canines have novel insertions of tiny bits of DNA that work to disrupt those donor genes. Thus we find that both species have the end result of disrupted genetic function of the same genes. We cannot rule out the impact of hundreds of other genes and early life experiences, we find that a small number of genes playing a surprisingly large role in shape social behaviors of dogs and wolves.”

Bio: Bridgett vonHoldt is an associate professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. Her research focuses on evolutionary genomics of admixed species, hybrid zones, and consequence of natural selection on the regulatory genome. She has carried out extensive studies on wild and domesticated canines. Her research has significant conservation applications for endangered species like the red wolf and gray wolf of North America. She also has discovered genetic factors that shape the evolution of social behavior of dogs as a result of their domestication from wolves. One of her research goals is to unravel genotype-phenotype evolution in wild and domestic canines. She is specifically interested in the interaction of demography, genetic, and gene expression changes that shape fitness-related phenotypes.