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Could a cheetah's spots and a tabby's stripes come from the same gene? (Juniors / SuperStock)

How the Tabby Got Its Stripes

Researchers discover the gene responsible for the patterns on cat fur

By Sara Goudarzi | November 20 , 2012

The gene responsible for the special pattern of a cheetah is the same one that gives tabby cats swirls and spots, according to new research.

Genes are units within the DNA of every living thing. They carry information about what makes an organism unique, such as a tabby cat's stripes. Genes are passed down through members of a species and help give each species a distinctive look.

Scientists have discovered that the different kinds of fur patterns on house cats come from the same gene that gives the cheetah its spots. The gene has mutated, or changed, over time among different species and breeds of cats. Scientists now think this mutation defines all the different stripes, swirls, and spots that make a tiger or a lynx distinct from a cheetah or a house cat.

"Mutation of a single gene causes stripes to become blotches [uneven spots or markings] and spots to become stripes," said Greg Barsh, of Stanford University.

THE SCIENCE OF SPOTS

Researchers compared the genetic differences of domestic cats in California that were striped and blotched. They found that blotched cats had a specific mutation in a gene dubbed Taqpep, and striped cats didn't.

Similarly, the king cheetah—which has a striped pattern instead of the typical spots—also has a mutation in Taqpep. This means that the cat's DNA has changed multiple times throughout its evolutionary history. The king cheetah's Taqpep mutation is so distinct from that of other cats that scientists first thought it was a completely different species of cheetah.

"We were motivated by a basic question: How do periodic patterns like stripes and spots in mammals arise?" Barsh explained. "Until now, there's been no obvious biological explanation for cheetah spots or the stripes on tigers, zebras, or even the ordinary house cat."

Scientists plan to next investigate cats whose fur lacks a pattern, such as mountain lions and domestic Himalayan cats. Taqpep mutations are common in cats that lack stripes.

By studying the genetics of cats, scientists hope to get a better understanding of human genetics and associated diseases, such as certain types of cancer.

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