How it Started: A Dog Named Georgie
The study has its roots in the death of Lark's beloved dog Georgie. Lark, whose earlier work focused on soybean genetics, adopted Georgie, a stray, in 1986, not knowing until a few years later that she was a Portuguese water dog. In 1996, Georgie died from an autoimmune anemia that destroyed her blood cells.
Lark looked for a replacement, and contacted Karen Miller, a breeder in New York state. He mentioned he studied soybean genetics. Miller heard only genetics, and began pestering Lark to study dog genetics. She sent him an expensive Portuguese water dog - Mopsa, who is now 10 years old - free of charge. Within three months, she also sent him 5,000 pedigrees.
To their surprise, Chase and Lark realized Portuguese water dogs were ideal for genetic studies because they all descended from a small number of "founders" - a characteristic that also makes Utah's Mormon population ideal for human genetic research. So they began recruiting Portuguese water dog owners to provide samples of their pooches' DNA.
Lark, Chase and others thus began "The Georgie Project," looking for long stretches of the dog genome with genes and other DNA that made Portuguese water dogs vary in size and shape, and in their tendency to develop osteoarthritis and Addison's disease, a hormone disorder suffered by assassinated U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
"There are at least 1,000 Portuguese water dog owners throughout the country who are very proud of the fact their breed has led the way," Lark says.
Chase adds: "Portuguese water dogs put dogs on the map in terms of a model system for looking for genes responsible for complex traits."
Ostrander praised Lark and Chase, saying, "Their creativity, vision and hard work are evident in every step of the study. The University of Utah has been extremely visionary in their support of this work."