A team of international scientists has conducted a new study, which shows that many genes controlling the development of the brain and the nervous system played a significant role in domesticating wild rabbits thousands of years ago. The studywas published in the journal Science on Thursday.
Domestication of animals started as early as 9,000 to 15,000 years ago, initially involving dogs, cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, while the rabbit was domesticated much later, about 1,400 years ago, at monasteries in southern France. The rabbit is considered to be an outstanding model for genetic studies of domestication because it was tamed very recently and scientists know exactly where it happened.
“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.
As part of the study, the scientists first sequenced the entire genome of one domestic rabbit to develop a reference genome assembly. Then they sequenced entire genomes of domestic rabbits again, representing six different breeds and wild rabbits sampled at 14 different places across the Iberian Peninsula and southern France.
“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. “Our data shows that domestication primarily involved small changes in many genes and not drastic changes in a few genes.”
The scientists have observed that unlike domestic rabbits, wild rabbits have a very strong flight response, making them very alert and reactive to survive in the wild. According to scientists, small changes in many genes rather than drastic changes in a few genes caused the domestication.
“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.”