The CATalyst: Mapping Cat DNA

Steve Dale, CAT FANCY writer and syndicated newspaper pet columnist, provides a weekly cat news roundup. This week, he shares the discovery of the feline genome map, created by researcher Leslie Lyons.

A genetic test is now available for cats. With a simple cheek swab, researchers can reveal if your cat’s ancestors might have been sold by corrupt priests in Egypt or perhaps derived from English royalty. Learn more at the cat genetics website of the University of California, Davis.

We owe this to sleuth Leslie Lyons, professor of Genetics and Population Health and Reproduction at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. She first cracked the cat genetics code in 2008.

Lyons helped to map the feline genome, to learn more than simply where domestic cats came from and cat history. “The hope is that with this knowledge (contained in the feline genome) we will be able to better understand cats and the diseases they get, and to therefore more efficiently develop treatments,” Lyons says.

A Map of Many Cats
In pursuit of chronicling cat genetics, Lyons traveled around the world cheek-swabbing cats for DNA. She personally cheek-swabbed cats in Egypt, India, Lamu (an island in the Arabian Sea near Kenya), Kenya, the Netherlands, Tunisia and Vietnam. Collaborators sent her samples from Australia, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey.

In all, Lyons tested 477 pedigreed cats representing 29 cat breeds, and 944 randomly bred cats, identifying 148 DNA markers.

Along the way, she figured out where domestic cats came from. Today’s domestic cat (Felis catus) likely came from the African wildcat (Felis sylvestris lybica), but possibly the European wildcat, too, and several subspecies of wildcats who until now were never considered as living cats, and difficult to find; two species until now were never considered, the Asian wildcat and the Chinese desert cat. Lyons concedes other small wild cat species might have contributed to today’s domestic cats.

How does Lyons know this? Cheek DNA tells their stories as efficiently as a history book.

How Cats Became Domesticated
Domestic cats likely participated actively in their own domestication at several independent sites between 8,000 and 3,000 B.C. Cat domestication happened nearly simultaneously in China, in Pakistan and also in the Fertile Crescent region (from Iraq into Turkey, south along the Mediterranean coast and into the Nile Valley in Egypt).

Although Egypt wasn’t the only place where cats became domesticated, cats were indeed celebrated there. There, citizens presented a mummified cat as a votive offering to the god Bastet.

Lyons explains that priests apparently set up a rather unique cottage industry, selling mummified cats. “If you had big bucks back in the day, you’d be sold a really cool cat. But you’d get what you paid for – even back then. So people without funds might have purchased a bunch of mummified wrapping with chicken bones inside, instead of a mummified cat.”

The credit to domesticating cats doesn’t really go to human beings as much as it does to vermin and to the cats themselves. As humans developed agriculture and began store grain in one place, rodents arrived. Cats followed. Individual cats who were more tolerant of nearby humans were naturally selected for. The cats benefited with a ready supply for supper. Humans had four-legged exterminators.

 “We also know that domestic cats were solely an Old World species until they were finally brought to the New World with European settlers,” Lyons adds. So, no matter what kind of cat you happen to have, pedigreed cat or domestic shorthair – your cat’s ancestry is from the Old World. And as an outcome of her work, Lyons can now tell from which feline family tree your cat is derived.

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