What Can Calico Cats Teach Us About Obesity? Feline Genetics Shed Light On How To ‘Turn Off’ Fat Gene

 @ThisIsPRop.ross@ibtimes.com
on February 18 2014 4:36 PM
calico-cat
A calico cat’s unique patterning could provide clues about human genetics. Creative Commons

According to science, there’s more to cats than just funny memes. Researchers in California are exploring ways that feline genetics -- specifically those that control for female calico cats’ unique coloring -- may actually help humans control obesity.

During the 58th Annual Biophysical Society Meeting in San Francisco, Elizabeth Smith, a postdoctoral fellow in the anatomy department of University of California, San Francisco, explained how the genetic anomaly that creates calico cats’ splotchy fur patterns can allow scientists to better understand what’s called “gene silencing” -- turning some genes “off” to control which traits are expressed and which aren’t.

“Uncovering how only one X chromosome is inactivated will help explain the whole process of epigenetic control, meaning the way changes in gene activity can be inherited without changing the DNA code,” Smith said in a statement. “It can help answer other questions such as if and how traits like obesity can be passed down through generations.”

As Discovery News explains, female calico cats have a gene for orange fur color on one of their X chromosomes and a black fur color gene on the other. Their distinctly patterned coats are created by the random silencing of one of the X’s in each cell.

Figuring out exactly how a single cell turns off a chromosome will provide clues about how different kinds of genes are switched on or off without affecting the underlying DNA sequence.

Scientists combined two imaging methods to visualize this gene inactivation in calico cats. X-ray tomography, coupled with a technique called cryogenic fluorescence tomography, revealed individual X chromosomes that had been turned off.

“So in every female cell, one of the X chromosomes just gets shut down,” in a somewhat random process, study co-author Gerard McDermott, a research biophysicist at the University of California, San Francisco, told Live Science.

Scientists say one day they may be able to use this same technique to identify certain patterns in sex-linked genetic diseases, and maybe even how we can turn them off.

“With new fluorescent probes, we can start identifying the position of specific genes in context -- inside the tangled network of DNA within the intact nucleus,” Smith explained. “It can help answer other questions, such as if and how traits like obesity can be passed down through generations.” 

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