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Dr Pam Wiener on the genetics of complex traits in animals

The influence of genes in animal traits, maths for biology, the secret dream of becoming a writer and her love for science.

Dr Pam Wiener

In this interview, Science Communication Intern Maggie Szymanska talked with Dr Pam Wiener about her work to understand genes that influence for instance certain diseases in animals, their behaviour or capacity to adapt to rough environments.

Could you tell me about your work in a nutshell?

My work focuses on investigating the genomes of domesticated animals, mainly focusing on livestock but also looking at companion animals, dogs especially. This involves trying to understand some of the genes that influence traits of interest, such as disease traits, production traits or other characteristic features. I use various statistical methods to investigate the factors influencing these traits; one of the main approaches I use detects regions of the genome that may be targets of selective breeding or environmental adaptation.

How did you become interested in your current field of research?

I started out working in evolutionary genetics which is different from what I do now as it involved thinking about evolution on a much longer time scale. However, even as a PhD student I was extremely interested in domestication and the workings behind it. I’ve was always been interested in the short term evolutionary changes that were happening in animals, even though I wasn’t really working on anything related to that. I did a lot of additional reading on domestication and tried to understand what was already known about it.

The topic fascinated me, the changes that had happened in some domesticated animals in such short periods of time were amazing to me. Some animals, such as dogs are massively variable, especially compared to some other species that appear to have very little phenotypic change over a long period of time. I remember reading papers which were asking questions such as: what is it about dogs that lends them to such diversification compared to other companion animals? Is there something specific about their biology and development? Questions like that got me interested in these short term changes and I started applying it to other domesticated species.

How would you say your work applies to the real world?

Recently, we have been looking at whether we can use the genomic data that we have for certain African populations of ruminants, sheep and cattle in particular, to see whether we can understand what some of the important genes for environmental variation and adaptation are.

Potentially, this knowledge could influence certain breeding schemes, for example, knowing that certain variants enable animals to adapt to colder or warmer environments or high altitudes could be very useful. The gap between the knowledge we have about these particular genes and farmers using this information feels very large at the moment, but there is definitely potential there.

Another area that I’ve worked on is researching complex diseases, for example, hip dysplasia in dogs - a really common disease in many popular dog breeds. Various studies have shown that, despite a strong genetic component, many diseases are influenced by both genes and environmental factors. Some of the work we’ve done in that area could be used to contribute to breeding schemes but unfortunately it is quite a slow process. In the case of hip dysplasia, there have already been some attempts to breed against disease, but so far it has been using mainly pedigree data. Incorporating genomic information could really speed up the process of breeding against this and other complex diseases.

Border Collie dog

Could you tell me about a project that you enjoyed working on?

One of the side projects I’ve been working on for the last few years is looking at the genetics of behavioural traits in dogs. We contacted many dog owners and many of them provided us with information, filling out surveys and sending us DNA. This has allowed us to look at both genetic and environmental factors that are associated with behaviour. This is really important as often, in the case of genes, they are influenced by environmental factors and having so much information allows us to investigate the association, which is really great.

Why did you decide to go into science?

I always followed things that I found interesting. As an undergraduate student I was very uncertain about what I wanted to do. I was studying mathematics, that was my main degree, but I did not really see myself following that path. Luckily, the education system in America allows you to take many other subjects alongside your main degree, so I took various science and economics courses. I started with an interest in mathematics, which I maintain to this day, but I had the opportunity to take these other courses, which broadened my interests and exposed me to many fascinating topics.

Additionally, the university where I was studying had a field station where I was lucky enough to attend a course on natural history and ecology. This really sparked my interest further, as learning ecology in a classroom can be quite dry, but being at this field station I was able to see so much of the science in action. That’s how I became more interested in science.

That sounds amazing! Would you say that your background in mathematics is useful in your biology research now?

Yes definitely, it is a very good background to have for any science, really. Anyone going into a science career must have at least a basic understanding of mathematics. A lot of people, when they think about the application of mathematics in science, they think of physics and chemistry, but they generally do not consider the importance of it in biology, while in fact, it is crucial in more and more areas of biology.

And lastly, if you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?

A job that I’ve always secretly thought about was being a writer, potentially writing short stories if I had more time. I really love reading and I enjoy writing a lot too. There’s a reason I am a scientist though and I really love what I do!

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