Figuring out how cat coloration comes about could help scientists understand our immune system’s resistance to infectious diseases.
On NPR.com, Joe Palca quotes researcher Stephen O’Brien as saying that they’re trying to explain why "some cats are spotted, some cats have stripes, some cats have what we call blotches, and other cats don’t have any of that, they just have a black or a lion-like color." The genetic variants that determine those patterns come from different mutations in the same genes.
Cats with narrow stripes have a working copy of one specific gene, but if a mutation turns that gene off, the cat ends up with a blotchy pattern.
There are reported examples of skin pigment genes playing a role in response to invading organisms. O’Brien says, "Many of the genes involved in coat color sit on the surface of cells. "Viruses are always looking for things to jump on that can allow them to stick and then invade a cell."
Palca quotes researcher Michael Waisberg as saying, "Melanin plays an evolutionary ancient role in insect immunity to malaria."
The Associated Press quotes cat geneticist Leslie Lyons as saying, "The cat has not revealed all its mysteries yet."
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