Cats can help humans understand our own DNA better than dogs

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Cats often get a bad rap for being cold, calculating, and not as loyal to their owners as dogs. While all of that may or may not be true depending on who you ask, a new study is proclaiming it’s time for the scientific community to start focusing more on our feline friends. Veterinary medicine expert Leslie Lyons of the Department of Veterinary Medicine & Surgery at the University of Missouri says cats should be the subject of far more genetic research. Why? The feline genome is actually quite similar to the human genome.

“Using cats in research is really overlooked, since people don’t realize the advantages,” says Lyons in a media release. “The dog or mouse genome have rearranged chromosomes that are quite different than humans, but the domestic cat has genes that are about the same size as humans, as well as a genome that, like humans, is very organized and conserved.”

Exploring ‘genetic dark matter’ in cats

According to Prof. Lyons, cats can help scientists form a better understanding of humans’ genetic “dark matter.”

Genetic dark matter makes up roughly 95 percent of human DNA, but is largely seen as nothing more than genetic “filler” by scientists. However, approximately 10 percent of the noncoding regions within the dark matter of the genome are conserved across mammals. This indicates that dark matter indeed serves a role, and an important one at that – we just haven’t figured out what that role is just yet.

Cats, meanwhile, often suffer from genetic diseases related to dysfunction of their genetic dark matter. In Prof. Lyons’ view, this makes felines an ideal model for studying genetic dark matter.

“As we discover that perhaps animals have more similar spacing between genes and the genes are in the same order, maybe that will help us to decipher what’s going on with humans,” Prof. Lyons adds. “Working with a primate is on the expensive side, but a cat’s affordability and docile nature make them one of the most feasible animals to work with to understand the human genome.”

Felines may reveal how to treat genetic diseases

Mankind’s ability to clone cats and make transgenic cats also plays into this. The first cat clone, named Cc (copycat), was created in 2001. The cell donor that Cc was copied from was a typical calico cat with black, orange, and white fur. Cc, though, didn’t have any orange fur. This defied Mendel’s laws and other basic genetic principles. This suggests that there is much about the cat genome that modern science has yet to understand.

Finally, study authors add that cats may prove very helpful in creating precision medicine for genetic diseases. This approach entails fixing genes as opposed to addressing symptoms. For instance, some feline breeds are prone to the genetic illness known as polycystic kidney disease. Well, polycystic kidney disease can also be diagnosed in humans. Theoretically, if precision medicine can one day treat this disease in a cat, it may be able to help humans as well.

“So, if you and your cat walk in the vet’s door and there is not a trauma, there is not a feeding problem, there might be a genetic problem with the cat. Vets could sequence the genes and potentially more quickly find the cause of what’s going on and then develop a treatment that is more appropriate than just treating the symptoms,” Prof. Lyons concludes. “We can provide a more tailored healthcare program for our pets, and more funding would put all the different pieces into place.”

The study is published in Trends in Genetics.