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What cheetahs and house cats have in common

Kgosi is a king cheetah from South Africa in which the Taqpep mutation was first discovered.
[Image courtesy of Steve Flaherty, Wild Cat Education and Conservation Fund]

The coats and color patterns of many domestic house cats are similar to those of wild cats, like tigers and cheetahs, suggesting that those traits are controlled by the same genes in different species. Now, a new study in Science shows that mutations in two specific genes can lead to the tabby patterns seen in domestic house cats as well as the spots on wild cheetahs.

Tabby patterns appear on house cats as either "mackerel" markings with dark narrow, vertical stripes or "blotched" markings with dark circular patterns that are less organized. Christopher Kaelin from the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama, and Stanford University in California—along with colleagues from around the world—searched the genomes of street cats in northern California and found that the loss of a gene, called Taqpep, interferes with the cats' color patterns without affecting any other organs.

The researchers performed tests and discovered that mutations on Taqpep can lead to the "blotched" tabby patterns in house cats as well as a rare breed of wild king cheetahs from sub-Saharan Africa. Kaelin and his colleagues also discovered that another gene, known as Edn3, controls hair color in tabby patterns.

Based on their findings, the researchers built a model that helps explain how coat and color patterns develop in both wild and domesticated cats, and also why such tabby markings can change in size—but not number—during a cat's growth.