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Leslie Lyons is a veterinarian and specialist in feline genetics. She is also a cat owner and general cat party known for telling her colleagues studying canine genetics with the long-standing adage, “Cats rule. Dogs drool. “
This has not been the case with research funding and attention to the genetics of disease in cats and dogs, in part because the number of dog breeds offers diversity in terms of genetic disease and perhaps because of a general bias in favor of dogs. But dr. Lyons, a professor at the University of Missouri, says there are many reasons why cats and their diseases are invaluable models of human disease. She devoted herself to the cause of cat research in an article in Trends in Genetics this week.
“Humans tend to either love or hate them, and cats are often underrated by the scientific community,” she writes. But she says that the organization of the cat genome is in some ways very similar to the human genome, and cat genomics could help understand the vast amount of mammalian DNA that is not genes and is poorly understood.
Among the advances in veterinary medicine that benefited humans, she pointed out that remdesivir, a key drug used to fight Covid, was first used successfully against a feline disease caused by another coronavirus.
She is the director of the 99 Lives Cat Genome Sequencing Initiative, and as part of that project, she and a group of colleagues including Wes Warren of the University of Missouri and William Murphy of Texas A&M University recently completed the most detailed genome of the cat to date, that surpasses the canine genome.
“Right now,” said Dr. Lyons.
I met with Dr. Lyons, Dr. Warren and Dr. Murphy who refer to themselves as Team Feline. Dr. Lyons was visiting Texas and spoke to two of her colleagues about why cats’ genomes are important to medical knowledge.
I cover animal science, and over the years, as I admitted to Team Feline, I seem to have written more about dogs than cats. The dog-cat rivalry in genome research is mostly a good-natured rivalry, but just to judge what I’m getting into, I first asked about the non-scientific approach scientists take to cats and dogs.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
First your personal preferences:
Dr. William Murphy: I have cats and dogs as pets, but I prefer cats.
Dr. Wes Warren: I am a dog owner. Unfortunately, I am allergic to cats.
Dr. Leslie Lyons: He has a very expensive dog who keeps having problems.
Why were you moved to write the article promoting the cat science cause?
Dr. Lyons: Throughout my career I have tried to make people understand that our everyday animals have the same diseases as we do and that they can provide really important information if we understand what makes them tick a little better, how their genome is built.
Do you have high quality genomes from several cat species beyond the domestic cat?
Dr. Lyons: We already have the lions and tigers, the Asian leopard cat, Geoffroy’s cat, half a dozen species with really, really good genomes that are even better than the canine genomes at this point.
Dr. Murphy: By far. In fact, until recently it was of better quality than the human reference genome. The goal is to have the complete encyclopedia of cat DNA so that we can actually fully understand the genetic basis of all of the cat’s characteristics.
Dr. Lyons: For example the allergy gene Wes is allergic to. We now fully understand this gene. We may even beat the cat to producing cats that are hypoallergenic, or at least better understand what is causing the immune response.
How are feline diseases a good model for human disease?
Dr. Lyons: What we are discovering is that different species have different health problems. We should really choose the right types.
Dr. Warren: We know dogs are more likely to develop cancer, much like we do. Cats don’t get cancer very often. And that’s a fascinating evolutionary story. So are there signals or clues in the cat’s genome that will allow us to better understand why cats get certain types of cancer and understand the differences between dogs, cats, and humans.
What about the cats that are the subject of research?
Dr. Lyons: Genomics is fantastic because all we need is maybe a blood sample. Once we have the blood sample, we don’t have to do any animal testing. We are actually watching what animals already have. We work with the diseases that are already there.
What about game species?
Dr. Murphy: High quality genomes for wild cats can aid in their plans for their species’ survival and recovery in the wild.
Dr. Lyons: We see half a dozen health problems in wild cats. We have a study of transitional cell carcinoma in fishing cats, hereditary blindness in black-footed cats, and polycystic kidney disease in Pallas cats. Snow leopards have terrible eye problems, likely due to inbreeding in zoos. So understanding their genomes can help us stop these problems in the zoo populations, and that will help people with the same conditions as well.
How about old DNA and cats? A lot of work has been done on this with dogs. How does this continue with cats?
Dr. Lyons: A few groups are moving forward with old DNA. I’ve worked on a few mummy cats and we’ve shown that the types of mitochondrial DNA we found in the mummified cats are more common in Egyptian cats today than anywhere else. So the cats of the Pharaohs are the cats of today’s Egyptians.
To change gears, I’ve always been a dog person, but I’ve been thinking about getting a cat. Any tips?
Dr. Lyons: Get two. They become friends. And give them something to scratch. Otherwise it will be your sofa.