Cats Are Finally Getting Geneticists’ Attention

By Carl Engelking | January 15, 2015 1:27 pm

cat

Consumer doggie DNA testing is old hat at this point, having been around since 2007. But cat-lovers who wish to decipher their pet’s breed are out of luck  no such tests exist for felines.

That fact reflects the state of the underlying science. Since the first full dog genome was sequenced ten years ago, geneticists have identified hundreds of genes behind canine diseases and physical traits. By comparison, just a handful of such genes have been identified in cats.

But a group of geneticists is working to close this gap by sequencing 99 domestic cats. This week the researchers unveiled the first results from their “99 Lives” initiative.

What About Cats?

In 2007, the first cat genome sequenced was that of an Abyssinian named Cinnamon. However, errors and gaps in the data stalled efforts to map genes, and the complete, high-resolution genome wasn’t published until 2014. Cinnamon’s genome taught us that domestic cats aren’t vastly different than their wild counterparts, despite 9,000 years of domestication.

Dogs have been the clear favorite of geneticists because they suffer from many of the same ailments as humans and their intensive inbreeding makes it easy to spot gene variations. Further, according to Nature, dogs also benefit from a bloc of enthusiastic breeders, veterinarians and owners who make recruiting easy for dog geneticists.

To balance the scales, geneticist Leslie Lyons of the University of Missouri launched the 99 Lives initiative. Its goals are simple: to expand coverage of the cat genome, improve the quality of data and identify genetic variations behind specific feline diseases.

But humans could also be beneficiaries of the research. According to Nature, “Cat versions of type 2 diabetes, asthma, retinal atrophy and numerous other conditions have close similarities to human disease. Cats can also become infected with a virus that is closely related to HIV and experience symptoms similar to those of people with AIDS.”

Making Progress

To date, Lyons’ team has sequenced the genomes of 56 cats at a cost of roughly $7,500 apiece. Funding for the research has been raised through donations from breeders and private owners alike. Currently, her team is studying the genetic basis of feline dwarfism and the genes that give cats silver or gold coats, to name a few.

You can help further cat genome researcher through donations, or collecting DNA samples from your own feline friends. You can learn how to participate by visiting Lyons’ website.

[Read next: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Cats]

 

Image: Cuson / Shutterstock

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