Scientists based at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Fredrick, Maryland, have become the first to sequence the cat genome, according to a report published last week in the journal Genome Research. Scientists hope that comparing the new cat genome, belonging to a 4-year-old Abyssinian called Cinnamon, with the genomes of other mammals, may lead to the discovery of new gene clues to human diseases and may help to reveal some of the evolutionary secrets of both cats and humans.
The team of researchers, lead by geneticist Stephen O'Brien and bioinformaticist Joan Pontius, used a technique known as 'shot gun sequencing' - where the DNA is extracted, chopped up into smaller pieces, sequenced, and then reassembled again - to identify the 20,285 genes contained within the cat genome. Although this relatively inexpensive technique is known to be error prone, the researchers believe that this rough version - covering around 60 per cent of the total cat genome - will provide scientists with a workable tool until the final version is published next year.
Dr O'Brien warned that the sequence wasn't entirely perfect. 'There are going to be some mistakes in there, but probably less than 1 per cent of the time we'll be wrong', he told the journal Nature.
Scientists have identified over 250 naturally occurring genetic disorders in cats, many of which are similar to those found in humans. Earlier this year, Cinnamon's genome helped scientists to home in on the feline genetic cause of a hereditary form of blindness, retinitis pigmentosa, a disease which also occurs in humans. Other human diseases which may be modelled in cats include diabetes, haemophilia, HIV (called feline immunodeficiency virus or FIV in cats) and lupus.
The researchers also found that the chromosomes in the cat genome have not undergone the same evolutionary shuffling experienced by many other non-primate species, making the cat and human genomes more likely to have genes in common. 'From a genomic perspective, cats share a striking ancient affinity with human kind', Dr O'Brien told the Telegraph.
Other mammals to have had their genome sequenced include dogs, mice, rats, chimps and of course humans, with many others in the pipeline. Researchers can freely access the sequence data produced for the cat genome on a website called GARField.