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How the cheetah got its stripes

By Stanford University Medical Center

Feral cat study identifies a biological mechanism responsible for both the elegant stripes on the tabby cat and the cheetah's normally dappled coat.

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Feral cats in Northern California have enabled researchers to unlock the biological secret behind a rare, striped cheetah found only in sub-Saharan Africa, according to researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, the National Cancer Institute and HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama. The study is the first to identify a molecular basis of coat patterning in mammals.

The scientists found that the two felines share a biological mechanism responsible for both the elegant stripes on the tabby cat and the cheetah's normally dappled coat. Dramatic changes to the normal patterns occur when this pathway is disrupted: The resulting house cat has swirled patches of color rather than orderly stripes, and the normally spotted cheetah sports thick, dark lines down its back.

"Mutation of a single gene causes stripes to become blotches, and spots to become stripes," said Greg Barsh, MD, PhD, emeritus professor of genetics and of pediatrics at Stanford and an investigator at the HudsonAlpha Institute.

The differences are so pronounced that biologists at first thought that cheetahs with the mutated gene belonged to an entirely different species. The rare animals became known as "king cheetahs," while affected tabby cats received the less-regal moniker of "blotched." (The more familiar, striped cat is known as a mackerel tabby.)...

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