Embark - Pop Science or Useful Tool for Breeding
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
I Embark all of my dogs (Amalu's test is currently being processed at Embark). What is Embark, for those who aren't keeping up with the new genetic testing options for dogs? Embark largely started as another company, like the Mars Wisdom panel, that used DNA markers and testing to determine the breeds in a mixed breed dog. I've been following the company practically from its inception, and while it did start with dubious accuracy like many of the other determine the breed DNA panels, I've also seen it correctly determined multiple purpose bred sports mixes with up to eight breeds in the mix in recent times.
Over time, Embark has begun marketing more heavily to breeders. Their breeders kit, which focuses less on the breed of a dog, and more on the health and genetic diversity has seen a huge rise in popularity. With this rise in popularity has also been a lot of pushback. "But why should I test my dog for a full health panel when there's only two tests that impact my breed?" Breeders ask. "Why should I test for genetic diversity when I can just run a pedigree COI on my dogs?"
Earlier in spring of 2020, Embark started offering packages for breeders. These packages included discounts if you order multiple kits such as for a planned breeding or for a full litter. For instance, their litter kit allows you to order a minimum of 4 kits or more starting at $99 per kit as opposed to their usual price of $149. They also have had a huge series of sales to make their product more accessible to breeders. Is this a sales tactic? You betcha. But it also seems to be a genuine response to wanting to help expand breders' toolkits, especially after they started partnering with Pure Dog Talk.
Are there reasons to be skeptical? Certainly. But here's the reasons why I like Embark, will continue to use them, and prefer them to other companies.
1. Cost - ultimately, even if you are paying full cost for a breeder kit $150 for color testing, health testing, and genetic diversity is a really good deal. With all the sales and discounts available, you can usually pick up a kit for substantially cheaper than this.
One of the frequent arguments I hear about breeders not wanting to use Embark is that it isn't cost effective, because they don't want to pay for additional tests that aren't relevant to their specific breed. So let's look at a quick example. Let's look at a common breed like Golden Retrievers.
First let's look at the Golden Retriever Club of America's position on genetic diseases that effect the breed: https://grca.org/about-the-breed/health-research/
Then let's pop over to Paw Print Genetics, one of the more common labs used to test various genetic diseases. With most labs, the standard is that you pay for a genetic test. Each test is bought independently, unlike with Embark. Most labs will also offer a breed specific panel/suite, which can save you some money.
For a full panel, included the supplemental (less common diseases) within Golden Retrievers, you would be paying $548. Even if you pick up a full price Embark kit, this is still far more expensive than the $149 Embark kit.
If you look at the list of diseases that Embark tests for, almost all those diseases are covered by Embark. Now, there are labs that have tests for diseases, traits, and markers that Embark doesn't or doesn't yet offer. For instance, the starred example above: Sensory Ataxic Neuropathy. This is not tested for by Embark, so it would have to be purchased independently through another company. However, Embark is always adding tests, so there is also the possibility that this will be added in the future.
2. Transparency - one of the big complaints I see about Embark is about their specific tests. Genetic testing is an ever expanding science and industry. There have been known instances of Embark's tests turning up inaccurate.
It turns out, as is really common sense, genetics is truly complicated. Yes, both humans and dogs have a distinct genes for each individual, but did you know ttherehat not every gene is always expressed in an individuals phenotype (physical appearance)? Did you know that an individual's experiences, diet, and environment can switch on an off genes that express? This is called epigenetics. So to me, it seems perfectly natural that not every test is going to be perfectly natural, especially since gene expression can also be controlled by what other genes express.
One of the big complicated diseases that Embark tests for is Degenerative Myelopathy (DM), which is a progressive disease of the spinal cord that can cause degenerative muscle and gait issues. Embark's test has been proven to be flawed/less than reliably applicable in a number of instances. Instead of hiding from this fact, Embark has written multiple times on the subject, explaining the intricacies of the disease and how people can help contribute to further research. And so for that test in particular, I would look to UC Davis or Michigan State who have more reliable tests for DM.
Similarly, Embark tests for Hypothyroidism. Both of my dogs have tested as clear for this. However, like DM, Hypothyroidism is a complicated disease, has been seen in Azawakh more than once, and thus I choose to run an OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) thyroid panel on my Azawakh, which examines the actual physical expression (phenotype) of my dogs' thyroid functionality.
The OFA accepts some results from Embark (an increasing number), but some test results it only accepts from certain labs. I've found OFA acceptance to be a pretty good measure of how accurate a particular test is, whether it be through Embark or another lab.
All of this takes research into your specific breed, but I can combine both genetic testing and phenotype testing to get the best information about my dogs' overall health. And I appreciate that Embark has a proven track record of transparency when their tests are showing to be unreliable.
3. Genetic Diversity Testing - there are other companies that run tests on genetic diversity within a breed. The big limiting factors are how many individuals of a breed have contributed to a particular company/lab and how that diversity is measured. The two other companies besides Embark that are popularly used to look at genetic diversity are UC Davis' Better Bred program and Mars' My Dog DNA/Optimal Selection.
UC Davis has produced some remarkable results in both Poodles and Dobermans, both popular breeds with large populations. However, I know of several breeds with much smaller populations, who have worked hard to get the number of required samples to become enrolled in Better Bred, who have received little new information for their troubles, because of the sheer number of samples needs, this can be difficult for rarer breeds. It also helps if you have a cohesive community or parent club, but when this isn't the case getting enrolled in the Better Bred program becomes much more difficult.
I really enjoyed looking through friends' My Dog DNA/Optimal Selection (owned by Mars) results, particularly because it computes diversity differently than Embark. However, they also suffered from issues with access to its paid breeder's tools recently and everyone lost results to their testing, which would make me incredibly wary of it in the future.
For me, there have been a fair number of Azawakh tested through Embark, though their results aren't always set to public, which makes it a good choice to use to look at genetic diversity. I have been happy with Embark's diversity testing and it tells me about my independent dog as opposed to a pedigree analysis which treats every individual within a litter as genetically identical. However, this is not actually have genes are passed down and siblings can actually be quite different, as explained by the human DNA testing service. By testing many individuals within a breed I can find (roughly since this is not yet a perfected process) how closely individuals are. This could allow breeders to do some breedings that are closely related on paper (such as a half-brother/half-sister breeding or father/daughter pairings) but actually are an improvement on genetic diversity compared to the breed as a whole.
For more populous breeds where Embark has a large sample size of individuals within the breed, they offer a new Matchmaker tool that allows breeders to experiment with test matings. But even for those breeds with fewer tested individuals, if you email Embark, they can run a specific test mating for you. I did this with Anubi and Amidi and found out that unlike usually where pedigree COI tends to be much lower than genetic COI, in this case the pairing has a 7% COI whether I look at that calculated using their pedigree or through genetic testing.
Below are Anubi and Amidi's results on genetic diversity. Their Embark results are public in the name of full transparency (this would be true even if their were carriers) and are available here:
4. Customer Service - I have always had very quick response times when I've had to contact Embark and every response has been extremely pleasant. I tested Anubi back when the breeder specific kit was brand new, I hadn't realized that was the kit I wanted. After the fact, I reached out to Embark explaining my mistake and asking if Anubi's results could be converted to the breeder tools (then substantially more expensive than the basic kit). They switched over the results immediately and at no cost to me, while also giving me the heads up that I would lose access to some features like the relative finding tool.
I have a friend in a breed that is not currently identified by Embark. They reached out to the company wondering if their breed could be included and Embark sent them three kits for free to begin establishing their database of that breed.
In my experience, when you reach out to Embark about anomalies, for instance your dog's phenotype doesn't match what their genotype says, they will respond to you about it. Sometimes they may explain why your dog's results make perfect sense, even when they're counter intuitive. But sometimes, they will launch research into that anomaly and that research can lead to new tests being developed. This is part of how Embark developed their new color intensity test.
5. Research and Development - there was recently a thread in one of my dog groups asking whether people Embark their full litters. Most of the answers were largely: "no, it doesn't have many tests relevant to my breed" or "no, why would I test dogs I'm not going to breed"? Let's look at those statements individually.
First, as discussed above, Embark is quite cost effective. Are you paying for tests that don't pertain to your breed? Yes, but it's ultimately cheaper than almost any other lab. Additionally, it gives you the change to discover problems within your breeder, often problematic recessive genes can hide unsuspecting within a breed's population. Widespread, widely applied genetic testing can help catch this. Now, there are times when dogs can show as carriers or affected/at risk for diseases that aren't actually physically expressed. Again, genetics are incredibly complicated. But rather than seeing this as a useless, unnecessary test, this gives us more information. It allows us to look into gene linkages, what is causing the gene to not express, and what might possibly cause it to express in the future. If Embark is contacted about such matters this can lead to a lot more research and knowledge known about your specific breed.
It can become problematic if everyone panics and throws those dogs who aren't actually even affected by the disease out of the genepool, but that ultimately comes down to good mentorship by older breeders, strong parent club education, and each individual breeder's research into genetics. Ultimately, I see it as giving me more information about my breed, even when a gene isn't expressed.
The next objection: "why would I test dogs I'm not going to breed"? This is an argument typically made by people who have breeds with a wide genepool and large population, populations that can afford to be very picky about the individuals who breed. However, especially in breeds with a narrower population, genetic diversity becomes a more important criteria to keep in mind when making pairings. More and more I have heard geneticists who specialize in canines discuss the use of breeding more dogs less often. So instead of breeding to the same male in a litter five times, breed to him a couple times and then to his brothers other times. This allows a higher number of unique genes within a genepool to be passed on to future generations. If I test every dog in my litter then I know exactly who the most diverse and least diverse individuals are. Does that mean I'm going to breed the most diverse, when they are the least conformationally correct? No, not necessarily. But maybe I'll find a good compliment to that dog and carry those genes forward while also improving on type. Maybe I'll place them in a pet home, but collect and freeze their semen for future use. Testing the whole litter gives me options and it's easy enough to build the test cost into the puppy price.
I will also say that one of my absolute favorite features of Embark is that when they develop new tests they will run them on all of their saved genetic profiles at no extra cost to the dogs' owners. While this is not a guarantee for any tests developed in the future, so far they have been able to do this. For instance they recently developed a few new color tests including one for color intensity. Even though I tests Anubi 2.5 years ago and Amidi 1.5 years ago, Embark updated their profiles with those results. This is a fun cool bonus for tests like color. For Azawakh in the US, who have no color restrictions, color tests are less important. For breeds that have color disqualifications, color tests can be very important. And even for Azawakh examined to the FCI standard, which has stringent white marking requirements, their new S locus test, which partially dictates the amount of white a dog expresses could be utilized in making breeding decisions.
However, what about genetic disease testing. What if Embark develops a marker for epilepsy, one of the holy grails of genetic testing? Epilepsy is the most common genetic issue within Azawakh and there are many other breeds (and mixes) in a similar situation. Even if this test is developed fifteen years from now, if I test every dog I breed from now until it is discovered fifteen years from now, that test can be run on every single one of those individuals. I can track exactly how epilepsy progressed through my dogs and the puppies I produced and know exactly who carries, expressed, and who didn't. In contrast, if I wait fifteen years for that epilepsy test to be developed, I very well may have individuals who have passed on and I can no longer test to see if they carry for epilepsy, if they should have expressed but didn't, and more. If I make this investment now, I am investing in my breed, investing in my dogs, and investing in my puppy owners.
Embark cannot develop better tests without more data and I am happy to contribute to their research and development.
Pictures below are of Anubi and Amidi's newly run intensity results because I find them interesting.
Update 3/15/21: This is an absolutely fantastic explanation about how Embark creates their breed references.https://puredogtalk.com/podcast/461-genetic-ancestry-deep-dive-on-genetic-testing/