Genetic Alterations Changed Wild Rabbits Into Tame Pets

Aug 30, 2014 09:28 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

A team of scientists has conducted a study that shows how genes controlling the development of the brain and the nervous system played a key role in domesticating wild rabbits thousands of years ago.

The study was published recently in the journal Science.

Domestication of animals started as early as 9,000 to 15,000 years ago, originally including cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, and pigs, while rabbits were domesticated about 1,400 years ago at monasteries in France.

The rabbit is considered be a perfect model for genetic studies of domestication since it was tamed recently.

"No previous study on animal domestication has involved such a careful examination of genetic variation in the wild ancestral species. This allowed us to pinpoint the genetic changes that have occurred during rabbit domestication," Leif Andersson of Uppsala University in Sweden said in a statement, according to a release issued by the university.

For the study, the scientists sequenced the entire genome of one domestic rabbit to create a reference genome assembly, according to the release.

"Rabbit domestication has primarily occurred by altering the frequencies of gene variants that were already present in the wild ancestor," Kerstin Lindblad-Toh of Uppsala University and the study's co-author, said, according to the release. "Our data shows that domestication primarily involved small changes in many genes and not drastic changes in a few genes."

The researchers have observed that wild rabbits have a strong flight response, unlike domestic rabbits, making them very reactive and alert to survive in the wild. Small changes in many genes instead of drastic ones in a few caused the domestication, according to the release.

"We predict that a similar process has occurred in other domestic animals and that we will not find a few specific 'domestication genes' that were critical for domestication," Andersson said. "It is very likely that a similar diversity of gene variants affecting the brain and the nervous system occurs in the human population and that contributes to differences in personality and behavior."

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