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Lion tamers step aside: beasts could be tamed through genes

June 12, 2009
Courtesy Federation of American 
Societies for Experimental Biology
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists say they have learn­ed where genes re­spon­si­ble for tame­ness lie on the rat ge­nome. 

The find­ing may lead to new breed­ing strate­gies to pro­duce tame an­i­mals by pass­ing spe­cif­ic genes in­to new genera­t­ions—and to the tam­ing of hith­er­to “un­tame­a­ble” spe­cies, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

“I hope our study will ul­ti­mately lead to a de­tailed un­der­stand­ing of the ge­net­ics and bi­ol­o­gy of tame­ness,” said Frank Al­bert, a sci­ent­ist with the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Ev­o­lu­tion­ary An­thro­po­l­ogy in Ger­ma­ny and first au­thor of the re­search re­port. 

“Maybe we’ll then be able to do­mes­ti­cate a few of those spe­cies where hu­mans have his­tor­ic­ally not been suc­cess­ful like the wild Af­ri­can Buf­fa­lo.”

The stu­dy, pub­lished in the June is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Ge­net­ics, has roots dat­ing back to 1972 when re­search­ers in No­vo­si­birsk, in what is now Rus­sia, caught a large group of rats in the woods around the city. The sci­ent­ists then di­vid­ed the ro­dents in­to two groups. The first in­clud­ed the most “friend­ly” rats – those that weren’t ag­gres­sive to­ward peo­ple. The sec­ond group in­clud­ed the most ag­gres­sive rats – those that screamed, at­tacked and bit hu­mans.

Since then, these rats have been bred with one an­oth­er. Now, the two groups of rats act very dif­fer­ently to­ward peo­ple. The tame rats tol­er­ate be­ing touched and pick­ed up, and nev­er at­tack. The ag­gres­sive rats scream, run away, or at­tack and bite. 

For the stu­dy, the sci­ent­ists mat­ed the tame with the ag­gres­sive rats and iden­ti­fied re­gions in the rat ge­nome that make a rat tam­er or more ag­gres­sive.

“For thou­sands of years, hu­mans have do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals,” said Mark John­ston, editor-in-chief of Ge­net­ics. “All dur­ing this time, much folk­lore and my­thol­o­gy has sur­rounded the pro­cess. But of course ge­net­ics plays a large role in the pro­cess,” he added. “This re­search pro­vides a sol­id sci­en­tif­ic ex­plana­t­ion of this phe­nom­e­non, and of­fers clues about how ge­nomes can be ma­ni­pu­lated to breed tame an­i­mals of spe­cies once be­lieved to be un­tame­able.”


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Scientists say they have learned where genes responsible for tameness lie in the rat genome. The finding may lead to new breeding strategies to produce tame animals by passing specific genes into new generations—and lead to the taming of hitherto “untameable” species, according to the researchers. “I hope our study will ultimately lead to a detailed understanding of the genetics and biology of tameness,” said Frank Albert, a scientist from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and the first author of the research report. “Maybe we’ll then be able to domesticate a few of those species where humans have historically not been successful like the wild African Buffalo.” The study, published in the June issue of the research journal Genetics, has roots dating back to 1972 when researchers in Novosibirsk, in what is now Russia, caught a large group of rats in the woods around the city. The scientists then divided the rodents into two groups. The first included the most “friendly” rats – those that weren’t aggressive toward people. The second group included the most aggressive rats – those that screamed, attacked and bit humans. Since then, these rats have been bred with one another. Now, the two groups of rats act very differently toward people. The tame rats tolerate being touched and picked up, and never attack. The aggressive rats scream, run away, or attack and bite. For the study, the scientists mated the tame with the aggressive rats and identified regions in the rat genome that make a rat tamer or more aggressive. “For thousands of years, humans have domesticated animals,” said Mark Johnston, editor-in-chief of Genetics. “All during this time, much folklore and mythology has surrounded the process. But of course genetics plays a large role in the process,” he added. “This research provides a solid scientific explanation of this phenomenon, and offers clues about how genomes can be manipulated to breed tame animals of species once believed to be untamable.”