Dalmatian dogs are famous for their black-on-white spots – now, for the first time, scientists will explore the underlying causes of this signature patterning, thanks to funding of almost half-a-million pounds from the Leverhulme Trust.

The new study – a four-year collaboration between scientists at the University of Bath and Lancaster University, with input from the Kennel Club – will combine experimental and mathematical modelling to link Dalmatian genetics to the pattern of coat pigmentation responsible of the breed’s iconic spots.

This research, at the interface of maths and biology, will seek to explain how coat pigment cells are born and migrate as the Dalmatian embryo develops.

It will also aim to shed light on the developmental processes of mammals more broadly, as genes involved in pigmentation play a role in the early phases of all mammalian life, affecting both developing immune systems and behavioural traits that emerge later.

Pigmentation patterns (including spots, patches, and stripes) result from the interaction of pigment-producing cells (called melanocytes) with skin and hair. The spots of Dalmatian dogs are irregular patches of melanocyte-populated hairs in melanocyte-absent white coats.

Despite the growing knowledge of the genetics that control pigmentation, relatively little is known about the mechanisms of pattern formation.

Spot the difference

Dr Richard Mort from Lancaster University is leading the £498,000 project – entitled ‘Spot the Difference: The Cellular and Clonal Basis of Dalmatian and Mouse Spots’. The other team members are Dr Barbara Shih, a bioinformatician also at Lancaster, and Dr Kit Yates, a mathematician from the University of Bath.

Dr Mort, a developmental biologist, said: “The impact of human selective breeding has resulted in some striking pigmentation in domestic animals. Dalmatians, with their characteristic spotting patterns, have long fascinated breeders, geneticists, and developmental biologists.”

Dr Shih said: “While recent advances have identified the probable genetic loci (the location of a gene on a chromosome) associated with Dalmatian spots, the underlying molecular and developmental mechanisms that generate these patterns are still poorly understood.”

Dr Yates said: “We will, for the first time, build a comprehensive mathematical model of mammalian pigmentation.

“This model will serve not only as a framework to explore the full gamut of pigmentation patterns in nature but also as a paradigm for wider efforts to generate digital organ systems and eventually whole organisms.”

He added: “Studying Dalmatians has the potential to enhance our understanding of human genetics too – both our evolution and our susceptibility to diseases.”