Feline DNA study explains spots,blotches on cheetahs, tabby cats

A new study reports that the gene that produces the striking dark stripes on tabby cats is also behind the spots on cheetahs.

In the king cheetah, spots merge to create large blotches, while stripes develop on the animal's back. Also a mutation of the same gene sees the stripes in cats and spots on cheetahs to become blotchy.

According to Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist now at St Petersburg State University, nobody had any idea what the genes were that controlled the patterns. However, he said, when the feline genome became available, they started look for them.

Dr O'Brien and his colleagues published their discovery of the gene, know as Taqpep, in the current issue of the journal, Science. The findings are based on data analysed at the Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology, in Alabama; the Stanford University and the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, in Maryland.

Cheetahs that have the Taqpep mutation (and therefore blotches and stripes) belong to a rare breed known as the king cheetah, found in South Africa, while tabbies with the mutation are more often found in Europe, according to O'Brien. The striped tabby is more common in the US.

DNA samples and tissue samples from feral cats in Northern California, were used in the study as also small skin biopsies and blood samples from captive and wild South African and Namibian cheetahs.
The scientists also uncovered a second gene, Edn3, governing hair colour in the cats' coat patterns.