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Explained: How your cat got its stripes and splotches

New research throws light on how domestic cats develop their distinctive patterns in their fur

Cats begin to show patterns in their coats, as early as in the embryonic stage.
Cats begin to show patterns in their coats, as early as in the embryonic stage. (Unsplash)

Folktales from across the world have a zillion theories about how the tiger got its stripes. But when it comes to the smaller cousin of the big cats—our familiar furry friends, the domestic cats—there aren't as many guesses about the unique patterns on their coats. So it's a bit of a relief that scientists, at last, may have a better understanding of how your kitty got its stripes or blotches. 

A new study published in the journal Nature Communications argues that a specific gene in domestic cats plays a key role in determining the pattern they are going to have on their coats. Even more fascinating is the claim that this pattern can be predicted as early as in the embryonic stage, long before hair follicles start to appear on kitten and assume their distinctive colours. 

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A team of researchers—including Greg Barsh, Christopher B. Kaelin and Kelly A. McGowan, all affiliated with the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Alabama and the Stanford University School of Medicine—have arrived at this conclusion after studying 200 embryos of pre-natal litters, The New York Times reports.

The major finding of their research is the role played by the Dickkopf4 gene, also known as Dkk4 gene, that sets off a reaction between two chemicals that determine the pattern of a cat's fur. One of these chemicals stimulates genetic activity, while the other inhibits it, leading to the formation of dark and light stripes on your cat, the article explains.

“It’s this really amazing natural phenomenon and we don’t know—or we didn’t know—much about how it came about or how evolution had changed it over time,” Dr Barsh was quoted by the New Scientist as saying. “Why does the tiger have stripes and the cheetah have spots? How does evolution act on those on a common mechanism to give rise to different patterns?" 

The discovery of Dkk4's role in the process may lead to creating “designer cats” in the future through genetic modification, though Barsh is against the idea if it comes at the cost of the animal's health. 

Barsh also told the New York Times that the theoretical basis of the research comes from British scientist Alan Turing's work on mathematical biology in 1952. The next step of their research would involve finding out how tissue patterns translates to different colours when the hair follicles start growing in kittens.

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