Man’s New Best Friend: What Cats Can Teach Us About the Human Genome and Our Genetic “Dark Matter”

Although cats have lived alongside humans for millennia, it remains a dogs’ world. This bias has historically bled into science as well. It’s time for cats to get their day, argues veterinary medicine expert Leslie Lyons in a Forum published on July 28, 2021, in the journal Trends in Genetics. Cats, she says, 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 realize the advantages,” says Lyons, of the Department of Veterinary Medicine & Surgery at the University of Missouri. “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 organized and conserved.”

Lyons writes that cats could be an asset for helping researchers better understand our genetic “dark matter.” Although making up 95% of our DNA, it has long been considered filler information of little to no consequences, yet approximately 10% 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,” Lyons says. “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.”

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