Where Cats Get Their Stripes

Your tabby cat shares genes with cheetahs, zebras and more.

Tabby cats get their stripes from two important genes, according to new research — the same ones that create a rare cheetah’s stripes and the markings of several other mammals.

Researchers at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology and Stanford University and international colleagues, today reported the new findings, which they say helps understand the basis of all cat patterns. They believe the genes that give cats at home stripes, blotches and spots are the same among many mammals such as zebras and tigers.

Lead researcher Professor Gregory Barsh, Stanford University, said a clear biological explanation for cheetah spots or the stripes on tigers, zebras or even the ordinary house cat has never before existed.

“Somehow, cells in the black stripes know they are in a black stripe and remember that fact throughout the organism’s life,” Barsh was quoted as saying. “We were curious about what’s happening at the boundary between light and dark stripes and spots. How do these spots know how to grow with the animal?”

Scientists analyzed the DNA of feral cats in northern California, as well as that of captive and wild cheetahs. They also looked at the DNA of a rare striped “king cheetah” from South Africa.

Researchers discovered a gene they dubbed Taqpep by the scientists. Blotched house cats had mutations in this gene, while striped tabby cats did not. The king cheetah also had a Taqpep mutation.

The gene produces an enzyme that can diffuse outside of cells, interacting with other molecules, according to the study published in the journal Science. Further work identified another gene, Edn3, that led to the growth of dark rather than light fur. Both genes are thought to act together to produce patterning.

Taqpep is needed to establish a pattern of stripes or spots in early development that is carried on by Edn3 as the hair grows, the scientists believe.

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