How science went to the dogs (and cats).

These early studies “highlighted both the potential that we could learn from dogs, but also that we would need larger samples to really do it well,” says Elinor Karlsson, a geneticist at UMass Chan Medical School and the Broad Institute. So researchers began launching large citizen science projects, scouring DNA samples and data from dogs across the United States.

Pet owners took up the challenge. The Golden Retriever Lifelong Studywhich began recruiting in 2012, is already tracking more than 3,000 dogs in an effort to identify genetic and environmental risk factors for cancer, a condition that is particularly common in this breed. Since 2019, the Project about the aging of dogsa long-term study of health and longevity, in which almost 50,000 dogs participated.

Dr. Karlsson’s own project, Darwin’s dogsstands at 44,000 canines and counting. (About 4,000 humans have had their genomes sequenced.) Researchers are mining the data for clues about bone cancer, compulsive behavior and other traits. Amid the early findings: Although many behavioral traits, such as sociability and trainability, are hereditary, they are widely distributed throughout the canine kingdom, and breed is a poor predictor of an individual dog’s personality.

This spring, Dr. Karlsson a long-awaited expansion: Darwin’s cats. “I’m a real cat person; I’ve never had a dog,” she said. She later added in an email: “I would like to know if ‘cat sleeps on your head’ is influenced by genetics.”

These projects were made possible as genomic sequencing became faster and more affordable. But the “tremendous enthusiasm” of pet owners has been integral, said Dr. Ostrander, who is now in charge of Dog10K project, an effort to build a comprehensive global catalog of canine genetic diversity.

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