Cat Genome Reveals Clues to Domestication

Humans and cats have shared their lives together for at least the last 9,000 years, yet despite this we still do not know much about how we actually domesticated them. Research was undertaken at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis which revealed some surprising facts about the genomes of cats.

Compared to dogs, we have domesticated cats for only a short period of time, compared to the domestication of dogs which can date back to almost 30,000 years. In the 9,000 years since domesticating cats, they are still only semi-domesticated so to speak, because it was only recently that they split off from wild cats and some domesticated cats even still breed with wild cats. Scientists at Washington University studied the genome of cats and how it has altered since being domesticated by humans. Some of the main changes that the scientists looked out for where fear, memory and reward-seeking. This is because these traits are thought to be major factors in the domestication of animals. “Humans most likely welcomed cats because they controlled rodents that consumed their grain harvests,” said professor of genetics Wes Warren. “We hypothesized that humans would offer cats food as a reward to stick around.” This meant that cats had an easier time catching food and obtaining it, converting wild cats to domesticated cats.

In 2007, the Cat Genome Project was underway after being funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute. The scientists chose cats with certain traits to study their domestication, such as their hair color, texture and pattern. Other factors where how docile the cat was and their facial structure. Coincidentally, most modern domestic cats are selectively bred by humans for the humans favorite hair patterns, colors etc. the team of scientists looked at a specific type of cat called a Birman, which is known for its white paws. Tracing the genome of the Birman cat back in history, they discovered just two alterations in the genes of modern day Birmans that are associated with hair color. This indicates that humans selectively bred the Birman cat for its white paws. Another major finding the researchers discovered was the cats’ ability to detect certain chemicals called pheromones, which allow cats to understand their social environment better and seek out cats of the other sex, which is needed for the cat to find a mate and reproduce.

Despite these findings, there are still many genomes which are the same between domesticated cats and wild cats. Some of these include the cats reduced sense of smell and enhanced sense of vision and hearing. Although this new research does indicate that there have been some changes in the cat genome in a short space of time, even if they are only minor, such as selective breeding. By using Genome Sequencing Technology, it has allowed scientists and researchers to understand how domestication not only affects cats, but many other animals too. The reason it can help understand other animals is because scientists can compare the genomes of cats to other animals, such as the fat-metabolizing genes in cats which are not present in humans or cows, because our diets our not primarily meat like a felines.

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