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The genetics of rabbit taming

Published online 4 September 2014

Moheb Costandi

An international team of researchers has identified several genetic changes underlying the domestication of rabbits, revealing the complexity of the relationship between genes and behaviour1

Animal domestication is a form of artificial selection in which species are bred for particular characteristics, but we know very little about the underlying genetic changes. Archaeologists believe wild rabbits were domesticated about 1,400 years ago by monks in the Champagne region of northeastern France.

In order to learn more about the genetics of domestication, Miguel Canteiro of the University of Porto in Portugal and his colleagues used whole-genome sequencing to compare the genomes of six different domesticated rabbit breeds with those of three wild breeds from southern France and 11 wild breeds from the Iberian Peninsula.

The study, published in Science, identifies approximately 50 million single nucleotide polymorphisms and more than 5.5 million insertion or deletion events that underwent selection during domestication.

“The changes are mostly in the non-coding regions of the genome that regulate gene activity,” says co-first author Federica Di Palma of the Genome Analysis Centre in Norwich, UK. 

The researchers also identified more than 100 genome regions at which ‘selective sweeping’ has occurred. “Suddenly you’ll see a region that contains the same variants,” Di Palma explains. “These confer some advantage to the species, and are usually present in high frequency.”

Very few of the variants they identified were ‘fixed’ within the genome of the domesticated rabbit, suggesting that artificial selection is still taking place in these breeds.

Many of the variations lie within genes known to be involved in brain development and behaviour. “Some are involved in fundamental functions, such as modulating signalling pathways during embryonic development,” says Di Palma. “They are associated with the initial steps of domestication – traits that have enabled rabbits to tolerate humans – so they may help us to learn more about human behaviour.”


  1. Carneiro, M. et al. Science, 345; 1074–1079. doi:10.1126/science.1253714 (2014).