How the cheetah loses its spots

Mutations in one gene alter felines’ coat coloring

Mutations in a single gene can alter coat patterns in both cheetahs and domestic cats, a new study finds.

Mutations in a single gene are responsible for the difference between a cheetah with typical spots (left) and the rare king cheetah coat pattern (right). Courtesy of Greg Barsh, Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre

In both types of felines, mutations in the transmembrane aminopeptidase Q, or Taqpep, gene causes spots of color to merge. In cheetahs, a normal Taqpep gene makes for a coat with typical spots; mutations in the gene result in the rare king cheetah coat pattern.

In tabby cats, “mackerel” cats have a normal Taqpep gene that creates dark, narrow, vertical stripes on a light background. The “blotched” variety has a mutated gene that results in less regular whorls.

Taqpep’s protein sets a pre-pattern in the cats’ skin during development, and the Endothelin3 protein comes along later to color in the lines, scientists report in the Sept. 21 Science. Because the patterns are set before birth, the stripes or spots on a cat’s coat do not change as the animal grows.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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