Remember the old saying about a leopard not being able to change its spots. Well, it looks like that’s going to become an obsolete saying in the days of genomics. Researchers have now used genomic sequences to find a gene change responsible for cheetahs with stripes and blotches instead of spots. The work is published in Science. An easier to read version of the story is in the New York Times.
The researchers say the relevant gene seems to be "conserved" (common) among felids (cats), but are still working on figuring out exactly how the change happens. The outcome seems to involve a protein known as Endothelin3. That protein also exists in humans. Id.
Two points here. For lawyers, this is an easy example of genes being conserved (common) across species. That’s pertinent to why it’s often (not always) appropriate to extrapolate animal study data to humans. The second point comes to mind as a father of teenage girls who are often thinking about what would be "cool." Putting that hat on made me wonder if future generations of teenagers will be asking for genetic therapy to create stripes or spots instead of asking for body piercings or tattoos. I hope that’s just a fanciful question for all future generations, but ….
The abstract in Science explains the study as follows:
"Color markings among felid species display both a remarkable diversity and a common underlying periodicity. A similar range of patterns in domestic cats suggests a conserved mechanism whose appearance can be altered by selection. We identified the gene responsible for tabby pattern variation in domestic cats as Transmembrane aminopeptidase Q (Taqpep), which encodes a membrane-bound metalloprotease. Analyzing 31 other felid species, we identified Taqpep as the cause of the rare king cheetah phenotype, in which spots coalesce into blotches and stripes. Histologic, genomic expression, and transgenic mouse studies indicate that paracrine expression of Endothelin3 (Edn3) coordinates localized color differences. We propose a two-stage model in which Taqpep helps to establish a periodic pre-pattern during skin development that is later implemented by differential expression of Edn3."