Animal prints are in the spotlight this fall, from the runway to the microscope. But while designers are merely recreating trendy animal-inspired patterns, scientists are studying the actual source of these patterns. Their subject of choice: the ordinary house cat.
Why cats? The cat family offers “a nice example of diversity” in coat designs, says Stanford University geneticist Greg Barsh. This is especially true for domestic cats of the tabby variety, which may be spotted, striped, or plain. Conveniently for researchers, house cats are also smaller, friendlier, and more accessible than their wild counterparts.
From previous experiments, scientists already knew that a single yet undetermined gene controlled whether a tabby had stripes or spots. To reveal this gene’s identity, Barsh and colleagues collected and compared DNA samples from fifty-one striped and fifty-eight spotted cats, as reported in a September edition of Science. In this way they discovered a gene called Taqpep that turned on or off depending on the tabby type. In striped cats, the gene functioned correctly. But in spotted cats, the gene curiously remained inactive.
The same gene was later examined in cheetahs. When operating normally, the gene adorned the cheetah in elegant black spots. But in rare king cheetahs, the gene was faulty, resulting in streaky black blotches. From pet tabbies to wild cheetahs, the activation of Taqpep—or lack there of—resulted in definitive coat-pattern differences.
Domestic cats separated from wild cats nearly 10,000 years ago. Was the faulty gene passed down to house cats from their wild ancestors, or did it develop independently in both species? Researchers hope to answer this question, as well as identify other genes responsible for cat-coat patterning in future research.
Fashion designers may abandon feline-inspired prints by next spring, but scientists show no sign of giving up this subject.