In a new study, researchers report that genes setting up the tabby pattern are stimulated in the skin cells of an embryo before the development of the fur of a cat.
A National Geographic report specified, the early skin cells even copy tabby stripes under the microscope, a finding in embryonic cells that have never been seen before.
Out of almost 60 million pet cats in the United States, one of the most common species is the classic tabby, a coat pattern featuring dots, swirls, and stripes, and what appears like a letter "M" imprinted on the forehead of the cat.
As famous as tabby cats are, scientists don't know much about how they are getting such a unique appearance.
The authors hypothesize the distinctive genetic process may be similar to the mechanism that produces spots and stripes in wild felines.
How Tabby Cats Got Their Stripe Pattern
The term "Tabby" is coined from "al- Attābiyya," a Baghdad-based quarter that generated a fine, striped silk taffeta during the 16th century.
Nevertheless, the stripes themselves possibly come from the domestic cat's direct ancestor, the striped wildcat called Near Eastern.
According to Greg Barsh, the study leader and an investigator at Hudson Alpha Institute for Biotechnology, a Huntsville, Alabama-based research facility.
The discovery, nonetheless, is astonishing in another way as well; the study leader explained that biology is using the same sets of tools repeatedly; therefore, it is very unusual to discover something that is not more extensively applicable to many other situations.
The genetics behind the domestic cats' patterns and colors have long fascinated scientists. For instance, Charles Darwin suggested that most deaf cats were white in color and had blue eyes.
During deployment, explained Barsh, species sometimes obtained inconsequential changes such as hair color as they were associated with other, more helpful changes.
A Surprising Finding
As part of their research, Developmental genetics of color pattern establishment in cats, published in Nature Communications, Barsh, together with his colleagues, collected almost a thousand embryos that would otherwise have been rejected or thrown out from veteran clinics that spray feral cats, a lot of which, are pregnant when they were admitted.
When the team's senior scientist Kelly McGowan studied the skin cells of embryos that were between 25 and 28 days old under the microscope, she noticed that the skin's thicker areas were interspersed with thinner areas, developing a temporary color pattern that is similar to an adult cat's tabby coloring. She was particularly shocked to find such a pattern so early in developing an embryo, long before the presence of pigment and hair follicles, which are both the keys to animal coloring.
To look more closely, the team examined individual cells of embryos and discovered a pair of different types, each of which expressed separate gene sets.
Among these sets, the most varied gene was the intricately labeled "Dickkopf WNT Signaling Pathway Inhibitor" 4 or DKK4.
DKK4 in Embryos
When the researchers looked at the manner cells were expressing DKK4 in embryos of roughly 20 days old, they found that the cells involved were the ones that formed the thick pattern of skin a few days after.
That DKK4, Barsh explained, is also a messenger protein known as secreted molecules, serving as an indicator to other cells surrounding it, vitally saying, "You are special," the area where there is a need for dark hair to grow.
When all things go as planned, cells that have DKK4 eventually turned out to be the dark markings, making tabby cats tabbies.
However, mutations frequently occur, resulting in other coat patterns and colors like white spots or thinner stripes. Changes can take place in pigmentation, as well.
Pigmentation, according to Verywell Health, is the color of the skin brought by a certain amount of melanin, a natural pigment that gives the hair, eyes, and skin their distinctive color.
Meaning, for instance, an all-black coat occurs when pigment cells that should have caused the colors to be only generate dark pigment.
Production of Cat Color Pattern
The team of Barsh is now seeing the production of cat color patterns as a two-step process, first involving skin cells that determine if tabby patterns are going to be light or dark. The second process then involves hair follicles that grow and produce pigments.
The study leader said they might even stumble upon findings that appear to have nothing to do with coat patterns, such as the invisible or unseen differences once imagined by Darwin.
Related information about Tabby Cats is shown on Animal Facts' YouTube video below:
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