K Locus Effects in Gray Wolves: Experimental Assessment of TLR3 Signaling and the Gene Expression Response to Canine Distemper Virus

Rachel A. Johnston, James G. Rheinwald, Bridgett M. Vonholdt, Daniel R. Stahler, William Lowry, Jenny Tung, Robert K. Wayne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


In North American gray wolves, black coat color is dominantly inherited via a 3 base pair coding deletion in the canine beta defensin 3 (CBD103) gene. This 3 base pair deletion, called the KB allele, was introduced through hybridization with dogs and subsequently underwent a selective sweep that increased its frequency in wild wolves. Despite apparent positive selection, KBB wolves have lower fitness than wolves with the KyB genotype, even though the 2 genotypes show no observable differences in black coat color. Thus, the KB allele is thought to have pleiotropic effects on as-yet unknown phenotypes. Given the role of skin-expressed CBD103 in innate immunity, we hypothesized that the KB allele influences the keratinocyte gene expression response to TLR3 pathway stimulation and/or infection by canine distemper virus (CDV). To test this hypothesis, we developed a panel of primary epidermal keratinocyte cell cultures from 24 wild North American gray wolves of both Kyy and KyB genotypes. In addition, we generated an immortalized Kyy line and used CRISPR/Cas9 editing to produce a KyB line on the same genetic background. We assessed the transcriptome-wide responses of wolf keratinocytes to the TLR3 agonist polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid (polyI:C), and to live CDV. K locus genotype did not predict the transcriptional response to either challenge, suggesting that variation in the gene expression response does not explain pleiotropic effects of the KB allele on fitness. This study supports the feasibility of using cell culture methods to investigate the phenotypic effects of naturally occurring genetic variation in wild mammals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)458-468
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Heredity
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 1 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Genetics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Biotechnology


  • Coat color
  • immunity
  • keratinocyte
  • pigmentation
  • pleiotropy
  • viral challenge


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