Gene responsible for cat fur patterns could lead to designer pets

There are many different fur patterns for domestic cats Nils Jacobi/Getty Images
How do tabby cats achieve their stripes? Although we know that domestic cats have different colors of fur due to the fact that their hair follicles produce different levels of pigment melanin in their hair, the genetic basis of these patterns is still unknown. Researchers have cautioned against designing pets based on this discovery.

It's a really remarkable natural phenomenon, and we don't know how or why evolution has changed it over the years, according to Gregory Barsh, at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology Huntsville, Alabama. What is the difference between the stripes of the tiger and spots on the cheetah? How can evolution use the common mechanism of giving rise to different patterns to create them?

Barsh and his associates examined the skin of fetal cats from different stages in development, taken from feral cat spay/neuter clinics.

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They discovered that embryonic skin was divided into different thicknesses, which corresponded with hair follicles that produced different types of melanin.

Continue reading: The secret weapon to the war between wildlife and pet cats

The team discovered that individual embryonic differences in DKK4 gene expression at different stages of development lead to variation in cat fur shapes and colours by analysing the genes of individual fetal cat skin cells. Barsh says that these findings could also be applicable to other mammals with pattern fur.

The majority of coat colour studies in mammals are done in mice. Mice don't have spots or stripes. Eduardo Eizirik, a Brazilian Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, said that domestic cats have been a promising model for many years. The gene can be found in other species, so it is not a significant contribution.

The selective breeding of domestic cats has been ongoing for many generations. It remains to be determined if the molecular processes discovered here can also explain wild felid variation, according Ricardo Mallarino, Princeton University in New Jersey.

Although it might theoretically be possible for this gene to create specific patterns in cats, Barsh said he would discourage such efforts due to the large number of feral and unwanted cats. He says that he is not enthusiastic about the idea of allowing people to create designer cats, especially if it means animal health will be at risk.

Journal reference: Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-25348-2

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