How Cats Get Their Stripes

Recent research of domestic cats has exhibited which genes give felines the particular patterns of their fur.

  • Cats can now show off their spots and stripes!
    Cats can now show off their spots and stripes!

How cats obtain their stripes has been a conundrum in the natural sciences for decades. The basics of animal color schemes have been a subject of interest in developmental and evolutionary biology for many years.

The typical tabby pattern of domestic cats with black markings in regular spacing on a light backdrop varies greatly in shape and color, and many of the species are comparable to wild cats.

But scientists knew nothing about their unique appearance, which had until recently been so popular as tabs. The scientists claim that in research published this week in Nature Communications, the genes in the embryo's skin cells are triggered before the cat grows fur.

Recent research of home cats has shown which genes give felines the particular patterns of their fur and that wild cats such as tigers and cheetahs, are capable of producing the same genetics with their distinguishing coats.

Early skin cells also imitate tabby strips underneath the microscope, a finding never before seen in embryonic cells.

The name 'tabby' comes from the al-'Attābiyya district in Baghdad, which in the 16th century produced exquisite silk taffeta. But perhaps the stripes are from the immediate progenitor of the domestic cat, the striped wildcat, from the near east.

The genetics behind the colors and patterns of domestic cats have long intrigued scientists.

Greg Barsh and his colleagues, a researcher at Hudson Alpha Institute of Biotechnology in Alabama, examined over 1,000 embryos taken from veterinaries that spawned wild cats. This was part of an ethically accepted study protocol.

Two different types of skin were found by the scientists, each of which expressed a distinct group of genes. These genes included the Dickkopf WNT Signaling Pathway Inhibitor 4, or DKK4, that differed the most from other genes. 

If all goes as planned, the cells containing DKK4 ultimately turn into dark markers for tabby cats. However, there are often mutations that result in various colors and patterns, such as white spots or thinner stripes. Pigmentation changes may also occur, for example, an all-black layer results in the production of a dark pigment in pigment cells that should have generated colors.