What cats can teach us about human genetics and precision medicine

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feline genome
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Although cats have lived alongside humans for millennia, it remains a dogs’ world. This bias has historically bled into science as well. But now it’s time for cats to have their day, argues a US veterinary medicine expert.

According to Dr Leslie Lyons of the Department of Veterinary Medicine & Surgery at the University of Missouri, cats have the potential to be a valuable model organism for geneticists, as the feline genome is ordered similarly to humans.

“Using cats in research is really overlooked, since people don’t realise the advantages,” said Dr Lyons, who presented her argument in a Forum published in Trends in Genetics.

“The dog or mouse genome have rearranged chromosomes that are quite different than humans, but the domestic cat has genes that are about the same size as humans, as well as a genome that, like humans, is very organised and conserved.”

Dr Lyons said that cats could be an asset for helping researchers better understand our genetic “dark matter”. Although making up 95 per cent of our DNA, it has long been considered filler information of little to no consequence, yet approximately 10 per cent of the noncoding regions within the dark matter of the genome are conserved across mammals, suggesting that it has an important, misunderstood role. 

Cats have been found to have genetic diseases related to dysfunction of their genetic dark matter, making them a potential model organism for this type of research.

“As we discover that perhaps animals have more similar spacing between genes and the genes are in the same order, maybe that will help us to decipher what’s going on with humans,” Dr Lyons said. 

“Working with a primate is on the expensive side, but a cat’s affordability and docile nature make them one of the most feasible animals to work with to understand the human genome.”

Another reason why cats could shed light on the human genome is that we have the technology to clone cats and make transgenic cats.

Cats could also play a role in precision medicine for genetic diseases, where instead of treating the symptoms, researchers fix the actual gene and what the gene does. For example, certain breeds of cats are prone to the genetic illness polycystic kidney disease, which also afflicts humans. Dr Lyons said that if we could treat this disease with precision medicine in cats, we could apply those learnings to us.

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