Do cats hold the key to understanding human genetics?

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They say cats are humans too – which could be true in more profound ways than previously thought.

A well-known feline geneticist published a new article in the journal Trends in Genetics calling for researchers to consider cats as subjects.

“The use of cats in research is really being overlooked as people fail to see the benefits,” said Leslie Lyons of the University of Missouri’s Department of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery in a statement on her new report.

Lyons argues that when compared to the more commonly studied mice or monkeys, cats have the potential to be practical models for human genetics thanks to common features in the “dark matter” of our DNA.

“The genome of dogs or mice has very different chromosomes than humans,” explains Lyons. “The domestic cat has genes that are roughly the same size as humans and a genome that, like humans, is very organized and conserved.”

Dark matter refers to the estimated 95% of our DNA, which is nearly identical across the animal kingdom. While they have long been believed to contain redundant genetic information with no clear function, recent studies in mice have led scientists to believe that the dark matter of DNA is key to our development.

Animal studies have shown that changes to the ubiquitous dark matter of the genome may not necessarily have biologically doomed the animal, but could be a major cause of some later-in-life diseases such as Alzheimer’s and blood cancer.

Similar to humans, cats are already known to have some genetic diseases that are related to the dysfunction of their genetic dark matter.

“If we discover that animals may have similar distances between genes and that the genes are in the same order, it may help us figure out what is going on with humans,” Lyons said.

She also suggests that monkey test subjects “can be on the expensive side, but the affordability and docile nature of a cat” make them ideal for a laboratory setting.

Advances in cloning have made it possible to clone and produce cheaper transgenic cats, that is, cats born with genes previously modified in the embryo of a surrogate mother. In 2001, scientists created CopyCat, or Cc, the first cat clone that also defied early genetic principles by avoiding the supposedly dominant genes for coat color.

Despite a calico cell donor with black, white, and orange fur, Ccs Orange was missing. The results were an early indication that there is much more to be known about how genes work.

Cats can also help scientists develop better therapies for genetic diseases, such as polycystic kidney disease, which affects humans too. If researchers can figure out why some breeds of cats are prone to the disease, that information could be used to understand how it is treated in humans. (Again, because lab cats are easier to find than humans.)

Veterinarians could already contribute to this effort. “If you and your cat walk through the vet’s door and there is no trauma, there is no feeding problem, there could be a genetic problem with the cat,” Lyons said.

“Veterinarians could sequence the genes and potentially find the cause of what is going on faster, and then come up with a treatment that is more appropriate than just treating the symptoms.”

Lyons believes cats can bring us closer to understanding human disease than mice and monkeys have shown – not to mention that cats are currently under-researched in the world of veterinary medicine, too.

“We can offer a tailor-made health program for our pets, and more funding would put all the different parts in,” she said.