We recently posted a story on Duke TIP’s Facebook page about Dogor, the two-month-old puppy whose DNA has rekindled a scientific debate over just when and where wolves and dogs started going their separate ways on the canine evolutionary tree.
For 18,000 years, Dogor’s remains lay peacefully—and remarkably well-preserved!—in the Siberian permafrost. After some locals found him, though, he made his way to the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Sweden, where researchers sequenced his DNA. The results left some unanswered questions.
While radiocarbon dating helped researchers determine Dogor’s age, analysis of his DNA couldn’t pinpoint whether he was actually a wolf or a dog. Strictly speaking, there’s a chance that Dogor was neither wolf nor dog, but rather an ancestor of both. (Either way, we do suspect he was a very good boy.)
This story about Dogor sent our imaginations whirring, and we ended up going down something of an internet rabbit hole. With Dogor as our guide, we humbly invite you to join us on this journey.
Rabbit Hole Stop #1
First off, how did Dogor’s remains even stay so intact for so long? It’s a little gruesome to think about, but there’s actually a whole branch of science dedicated to the study of what happens to organisms after they die. It’s called taphonomy (the Greek word for burial is taphos). More often than not, the dearly departed organism will end up as food for something higher on the food chain. Other times, the right chemical and physical conditions will exist for part of the organism to become a fossil. And then there’s what happened to Dogor: he was buried in ice, so all the bacteria that usually help move along the process of decay never had a chance to do their thing.
Rabbit Hole Stop #2
We certainly hope no one involved in the Dogor saga ever wondered what the poor creature tasted like. It certainly never crossed our minds! But it turns out that there’s a rich history of people dining on long-frozen wooly mammoths—or at least of people thinking they’re dining on long-frozen wooly mammoths. Behold: “What Happens to Meat When You Freeze It for 35,000 Years: A gastronomic investigation of mammoth feasts.”
By the way, if you’re interested in the science of food preservation, there’s a college major for that.
Rabbit Hole Stop #3
We wanted to know more about what DNA sequencing actually is. It should come as no surprise, but it’s a very complex topic! In fact, the specialized vocabulary geneticists use can get very overwhelming very fast. What’s remarkable, though, is that the basics are very simple.
Millions of different species inhabit the planet earth. One recent study even estimates 2 billion! But the genetic code that determines all those species’ different behaviors and appearances boils down to long DNA sequences consisting of just four nucleotides. When scientists compare the DNA sequences of different species, they’re doing something called multiple sequence alignment.
In a way, comparing different genetic sequences is like completing a puzzle. In fact, researchers at McGill University have turned multiple sequence alignment into an online game. It’s called Phylo, and it’s something you can play yourself!
While scientists depend on computer algorithms to compare most DNA sequences, they also realize that humans have their own unique ability to recognize patterns and solve visual puzzles. The researchers behind Phylo are betting big that those puzzle-solving skills can help optimize our understanding of DNA. In that sense, Phylo is actually more than a game. It’s a way for you to contribute to advancements in molecular biology. Phylo’s players have been doing just that for nearly ten years now.
Rabbit Hole Stop #4
Phylo is a good example of a research method called citizen science. With citizen science projects, professional scientists create opportunities for amateur scientists to contribute data to large-scale scientific inquiries. Citizen science is a win-win for the scientific community: it increases the public’s understanding of science and hastens the pace of discovery.
Rabbit Hole Stop #5
We found a citizen science project called Manatee Chat, in which you listen to recordings of manatee vocalizations and classify them according to a checklist the project’s creators provide. It turns out that manatees have a lot to say!
Rabbit Hole Stop #6
We also found a project called Etch a Cell. Here, you’ll look at a magnified image of a cell, identify the nucleus, and trace around it using your mouse or touchpad. It’s probably a simple process for you, but computers don’t always get it right. Ultimately, Etch a Sketch participants are helping biologists in England create three-dimensional models of cells from a combination of lots of different two-dimensional images.
Rabbit Hole Stop #7
While we were busy exploring all these fun citizen science projects, we took a moment to remember what got us started on our journey down this rabbit hole in the first place: Dogor the puppy.
We hadn’t yet come across any citizen science projects related specifically to dogs, but we figured there must be some out there. Indeed there are! One of the foremost among them, called Dognition, is run by a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University named Brian Hare. With Dognition, you can test your dog’s intelligence with cognitive games both to learn more about your furry best friend and to contribute data to scientists like Dr. Hare.
Rabbit Hole Stop #8
While we’re at it, here’s a great blog to follow if you’re interested in the science of dogs more generally: Dog Spies.