How Sandy became a gift to science

Sandy the desert dingo wins The World's Most Interesting Genome Competition


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Sandy the purebred desert dingo, pictured as a pup soon after her 2014 rescue, is a "gift to science". Photo: Barry Eggleton

Sandy the purebred desert dingo, pictured as a pup soon after her 2014 rescue, is a "gift to science". Photo: Barry Eggleton

Aa

An Australian "gift to science" has been named the winner of a global competition.

Aa

An Australian "gift to science" has been named the winner of a global competition.

Sandy the purebred desert dingo beat four international finalists to take first place in the World's Most Interesting Genome Competition. 

The win will give Australian scientists the opportunity to decode her DNA and test a hypothesis raised by Charles Darwin almost 150 years ago.

The public determined the winner of the annual competition. Sandy edged out a Temple Pitviper snake, a solar-powered sea slug, an explosive bombardier beetle and a pink pigeon to claim 41 per cent of votes. Up for grabs was the Pacific Biosciences SMRT Grant, which enables sequencing of the complete genome of an important animal or plant.

The proposal to study Sandy's DNA was led by Professor Bill Ballard from the University of NSW, with Professor Claire Wade of the University of Sydney, Dr Richard Melvin of UNSW, Dr Robert Zammit of the Vineyard Veterinary Hospital and Dr Andre Minoche of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research also part of the project.

The sequencing will be carried out at the University of Arizona.

"We are thrilled that our bid to have Sandy's DNA sequenced captured the public's imagination," Professor Ballard, from UNSW's School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, said. 

Professor Ballard has previously said Darwin theorised that there are two steps to the process of domestication: unconscious selection, as a result of non-intentional human influences, and artificial selection, through deliberate human activities such as breeding.

Sequencing Sandy's DNA will allow scientists to examine the changes in genes associated with the process of domestication.

"Sandy is truly a gift to science," Professor Ballard said. "As a rare, wild-born pure dingo, she provides a unique case study. Pure dingoes are intermediate between wild wolves and domestic dogs, with a range of non-domesticated traits. So sequencing Sandy's genome will help pinpoint some of the genes for temperament and behaviour that underlie the transition from wild animals to perfect pets."

Professor Ballard added that "learning more about dingo genetics will help efforts to conserve these wonderful Australian animals, through the development of improved tests for dingo purity".

Sandy and her siblings, Eggie and Didi, were three weeks old when they were found motherless near the Strzelecki Track in central Australia in 2014 by Barry and Lyn Eggleton, who raised the pups themselves.

Purebred desert dingoes are increasingly rare in Australia as the native animals interbreed with wild and domestic dogs and are targeted as pests by landholders.

Scientists at the UNSW's Ramaciotti Centre for Genomics have worked on the genomes of other important native species including the koala, the Tasmanian devil, the wombat, the platypus, the Queensland fruit fly and the Wollemi Pine.

"We're very proud of UNSW's history of contribution to genomics and we are delighted that Sandy's genome will now be sequenced as the prize for winning this competition," UNSW molecular biologist and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), Professor Merlin Crossley, said.

"Australia has so many interesting animals to sequence and the results enhance our understanding of evolution and biology and help improve agriculture and pest management."

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