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What is, in fact, a domestic rabbit?  

Domestication of animals and plants is probably the most important experiment ever made in evolutionary biology. In the last 10.000 years, man has been modifying both animal and plant genomes, creating an enormous variety of resources that included food, transport and clothes, and that ultimately revolutionized human societies.

The recent burst of genetic studies directed to species under domestication revealed the complexity of this process. In animals, the use of both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequences provided evidence for an unexpectedly high number of domestication events and diverse locations in which they took place. However, the essence of the domestication process is still elusive, and the direct analysis of genes with major effects on the phenotype is still in its infancy. This project aims to contribute for this new dimension of domestication studies by using the domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) as a model species for two main reasons: first, it is the only domesticated animal originated in Western Europe and, second, it has been the target of multiple genetic studies including markers as allozymes, STRs, mtDNA, Y- and X-chromosome sequences.

The basic question we will address in this proposal will then be what is, in fact, a domestic rabbit. A possible answer would say that, when compared with his wild ancestral, it is a big animal, showing increased fertility and exhibiting a wide variety of colours. Accordingly, this project will be divided in three major parts. In the first part we will use molecular tools to investigate the possibility that the increase in size observed in the majority of rabbit breeds is associated with specific genetic variants at two candidate loci: the growth hormone and leptin. The partial sequencing of these genes in combination with closely linked STRs will allow the construction of haplotypes and the analysis of patterns of intra-allelic diversity. Contrasting these patterns with those exhibited by breeds with different sizes and by wild populations will be done in order to test alternative hypotheses on the evolutionary history of genetic variants at these loci. In the second part we will use a similar approach to test the association of an increased fertility of domestic breeds to specific genetic variants of milk protein genes. In particular, we will use a similar set of molecular tools to characterize the genes coding for both the b- and k-caseins, for which previous evidence has already suggested an association with increased litter size in domestic rabbits. Finally, we will again follow the same methodology to identify specific genetic variants associated with coat colour polymorphism in domestic breeds. Genes that are probably implicated in coat colour variation in domestic rabbits comprise melanocortin-1-receptor, agouti and tyrosinase. In fulfilling these goals we expect to increase our knowledge about the selective forces that helped to transform a wild rabbit in our domestic companion and ultimately to better understand how domestication works.

Principal Investigator
Nuno Miguel dos Santos Ferrand de Almeida

Nuno Miguel dos Santos Ferrand de Almeida

Position: Full Professor
Pedro José de Castro Esteves

Pedro José de Castro Esteves

Position: Principal Researcher
Proponent Institution
Instituto de Ciências e Tecnologias Agrárias e Agro-Alimentares - Porto (ICETA-Porto/UP)
2005 (Duration: 3 years)
Participant Institutions
Centro de Investigação em Biodiversidade de Recursos Genéticos (CIBIO/ICETA-Porto/UP), Instituto de Patologia e Imunologia Molecular (IPATIMUP/UP)
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