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Dr Jeffrey Schoenebeck on dog genetics and shapes

Understanding the genetics of body forms and diseases in dogs, and unusual work in museums.

Jeff Schoenebeck standing in front of a 3D picture of a dog skull.

Dr Jeffrey Schoenebeck is a Group Leader at the Roslin Institute, where he analyses genetics, health and body shapes of dogs. In this interview, he talks to MSc Science Communication student Cheir Lu about his work and his lifelong love of biology.

When did you become interested in working with animals?

I was really lucky as a child because I grew up outside a small city called Reading in the state of Pennsylvania in the US and my parents’ house was surrounded by forest and wetlands, so I could spend a lot of time outside exploring and finding animals. The aquariums in my bedroom had snakes, turtles, fish and many other animals I captured outside of my house. Later, I wasted all my hard-earned money from summer jobs on a saltwater aquarium. I even had an octopus  ̶  I should have made a Netflix movie with it. I took a lot of time studying how these animals behaved and how they ate. I've always really liked working with animals and studying their forms and behaviours.

Why did you decide to become a scientist?

I guess it was my love of biology. When I was young, I always watched scientists on television. Who didn’t love Jacques Cousteau? My parents would also drag me to birdwatching at that time, which was meaningful. I would always have questions and other than finding the answers on TV, I felt like maybe I could produce some of the answers myself.

Could you tell me about your work in a nutshell?

The central question of my research group is how genes determine morphology  ̶  the body forms  ̶ of animals. For example, we want to understand what differences in DNA allow some dogs to be big and others to be small. When we stop to consider that skeletal shapes differentiate nearly all domesticated mammals from their ancestral lineages, what seems like a bit of an esoteric focus takes on more meaning.

A lot of your research is about dogs. Why is that?

Dogs are a really unusual species. Through the process of domestication, which began some 30,000 year ago, and later through selective breeding practices by fanciers, profound skeletal changes emerged. The reasons why these forms were selected and propagated are diverse  ̶  some dogs run and hunt, others work and guard farms and others simply hang out with people. This has allowed dog morphology to radiate and become diversified, based on human whim.

Could you tell me about applications of your work?

Firstly, it applies to breeding practices. Morphological extremes, as exemplified by teacup, giant, short-legged and flat-faced varieties, often present unique health risks. The question of whether such breed-defining traits cause morbidities is contentious especially among breeders. Through defining the molecular underpinnings of these traits, we hope to engage stakeholders with biology, offer guidance on how to reduce disease risk, or motivate changes in breeding practices.

It is worth bearing in mind that while these forms are often breed-defining, when analogous forms occur in humans they are described as skeletal anomalies or dysplasias. They are often accompanied by tremendous morbidities. Therefore I think the dog is a unique model for uncovering and understanding the genetic basis of rare human conditions.

Why did you decide to work at the Roslin Institute?

I was really excited to come to Roslin. The Institute has great strengths in animal sciences, particularly in genetics and genome research. Besides, across the street there is the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and the two seem like a perfect marriage of having access to companion animals, particularly dogs, and having amazing capacity to diagnose most diseases with cutting-edge technologies such as diagnostic imaging.

Being based here is an amazing opportunity for me to be surrounded by like-minded colleagues, both on the clinical side and on the research side. We have the same interests in genetics, applications of cell biology and the development of the skeletal system.

Another reason is my belief in the importance of getting outside of my comfort zone by working in new places. I’ve spent a lot of my schooling in the east coast of the US, so I really wanted a change and to work in a new place.

What do you like the most about working here?

I would say it is the personal relationships that have developed within the Institute and across the street, at the Hospital for Small Animals. I love the conversations I have with my colleagues, talking about the possibilities of research, the new approaches to science that we would love to develop. The excitement can take place simply through bumping into a colleague and having an unexpected conversation about our science.

As for my projects, my favourite will always be trying to understand the genetics of skeletal form and function. Our team have made inroads into understanding the language of skull shape. But the skull is just one end of the entire skeleton, so now we are trying to understand how we can expand our knowledge of genes and genetic variance, and how they affect other parts that go into making a fully-functional skeleton. Roslin gives me the opportunity to access its amazing database.

What are the challenges you experience as a scientist?

I think the major problem is that research investment in companion animal is often viewed by external bodies as niche or frivolous. Because of this, we’ve had to lean on charity funding for much of our science. Don’t get me wrong, research funding, wherever it comes from, is welcome. However, higher level experimentation is often beyond the reach of charity funding. Meaningful impacts – those that improve both companion animal and human health – will require investment of research councils and the Wellcome Trust.

What is the most unusual thing you have done as a scientist?

When I was doing my post-doctoral training, I was paid for measuring skeletons in some of the natural history museums in the US and Europe. Often, I was in the storage facilities of these museums, which visitors cannot access, to get my skeletal measurement work done. I had access to amazing data there. As well I saw some amazing historical specimens, such as American bison shot by Buffalo Bill and one of the first coelacanths ever caught by net.

Do you communicate with non-scientists about your research?

My team has taken part in public engagement events at the National Museum of Scotland, Royal Highland Show and podcast interviews.

I particularly enjoy communicating with young adults and school pupils. I feel a certain kinship with them and it makes me remember the time when I first learned something about biology.

Do you think the importance of science communication has been increasing?

It absolutely has. It is incredibly important because if scientists cannot tell the general public why we are doing what we are doing, we will always be looked with a certain degree of suspicion or mistrust. There are many examples from the past where a certain research has been misconstrued or misinterpreted and that had damaging consequences.

Do you have any advice for students who want to go into this field of research or are starting a career as a scientist?

Find your passion by exploring and learning different techniques and different approaches. By doing that, you will have a much broader understanding of the possibilities and applications before you become more specialised. Do not hide in your comfort zone with any technique or discipline. The exploration and learning, trying different techniques in different systems, will help you find your true love.

What would you be doing if you hadn’t become a scientist?

I would be a zookeeper or curator. When I lived in Washington, DC, I used to volunteer on my Saturday mornings at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo Amazonia exhibit. They had numerous freshwater tanks and a glass arboretum that enclosed a tropical forest with monkeys, birds and a sloth. I’d arrive before the exhibit opened to the public to water plants, feed animals and do other upkeep. It was such an amazing and peaceful start to the weekend.

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