"It's this really amazing natural phenomenon and we don't know — or we didn't know — much about how it came about or how evolution had changed it over time," senior author Gregory Barsh from the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology tells it. "Why does the tiger have stripes and the cheetah have spots? How does evolution act on those on a common mechanism to give rise to different patterns?"
By examining fetal cat skin cells — collected from feral cat spay-neuter clinics — Barsh and his colleagues noticed stripe-like differences in skin thickness. As they report in Nature Communications, they turned to single-cell gene expression analysis to find differences in the expression of the Dkk4 gene, which encodes a Wnt inhibitor, associated with these tabby patterns. The researchers further note that the Dkk4 gene is mutated in cats with a Ticked coat pattern.
The findings additionally suggest cats may be a good model organism for studying coat colors and patterns, Eduardo Eizirik from Brazil's Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul tells New Scientist.