In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Oxford have explained how the cat got its spots, a condition known as piebaldism – where a cat or horse have skin sections or patches colored differently and usually brightly than the rest of its body.
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The new study, reported in Reuters, now identifies piebaldism as a benign genetic disease caused by mutations in the animal’s body. This condition sometimes also affects humans.
Dr. Christian Yates, a mathematical biologist from the University of Bath explained that the study of piebaldism is a skin and genetic defect associated with Neurocristopathies, which sometimes show as deafness, holes in the heart, cancer of the nervous system, and digestive problems among others. Scientists say piebaldism results when body cells fail to migrate to the right places during the development of an embryo.
The mutation of the gene Kit produces piebaldism, where certain spots on the fur or skin of an animal lacks proper pigmentation – usually on the forehead or belly, leading to white or speckled spots. Although not so common in humans, it sometimes manifests as a white forelock in the hair of people.
"Piebaldism is actually a disease," Yates explained. "It's caused by cells in the early embryo failing to migrate correctly, failing to get to the right place. The cells which we're interested in, that cause piebaldism, are called melanocytes and they're responsible for pigmentation of hair and of the skin.”
Yates further explained that the cells begin developing at the back of the embryo and attempt to move round the skin to cover it. But when the cells cannot completely cover the whole skin of the embryo, the remaining places form spots lacking in pigments, often at the front of an animal. “This is common in cats…tuxedo cats, and it's also common in horses and pigs and even in humans," he said.
The researchers use mouse embryos for their experiments, and here they analyzed the cells of the creatures as they moved round the mice skin and divided in the process. Then a mathematical model was developed to verify that pigment cells actually move from one point of the body to the other in a random fashion.
"Traditionally people thought that cells didn't make it to the front of embryos to pigment the belly because they just weren't migrating fast enough," said Yates. "What we've been able to show through our studies is that actually, if anything, cells in piebald animals migrate faster but they're just not proliferating enough.”
He added that the cells were not dividing enough to colonize or cover the entire parts of the skin where they are needed before the pigmentation pattern start to slow down and then stop.
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The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, Medical Research Scotland, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reductions of Animals in Research.