Feline genetics help identify the first domestication of cats

Nearly 10,000 years ago, humans who settled the Fertile Crescent, the areas of the Middle East surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, made the first shift from hunter-gatherers to farmers. They developed close ties to the rodent-eating cats that conveniently served as ancient pest control in early society civilizations.

A new study in the University of Missouri He discovered that this lifestyle transition for humans was the catalyst that led to the world’s first cat domestication, and when humans began to travel the world, they brought their new feline friends with them.

Leslie A. Lyons, a feline geneticist and professor of comparative medicine at the University of Michigan College of Veterinary Medicine, obtained and analyzed DNA from cats in and around the Fertile Crescent area, as well as throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, comparing nearly 200 different genetic markers.

“One of the main DNA markers we studied were microsatellites, which mutate very quickly and give us clues about recent cat populations and breed development over the past few hundred years,” Lyons said. “Another key DNA marker we examined was single nucleotide polymorphisms, which are single-base changes throughout the genome that give us clues to its ancient history several thousand years ago. By studying and comparing both markers, we can begin to reconstruct the evolutionary history of cats.”

Lyons added that while horses and cattle have seen various human-caused domestication events in different parts of the world at various times, his analysis of feline genetics in the study strongly supports the theory that cats were likely domesticated. for the first time alone in the Fertile Crescent before migrating. with humans from all over the world. After feline genes are passed down to kittens from generation to generation, the genetic makeup of cats in Western Europe, for example, is now vastly different from that of cats in Southeast Asia, a process known as “separation isolation.” distance”.

“We can actually refer to cats as semi-domesticated, because if we were to release them into the wild, they would probably still hunt vermin and be able to survive and mate on their own due to their natural behaviors,” Lyons said. “Unlike dogs and other domesticated animals, we haven’t actually changed the behavior of cats that much during the domestication process, so cats once again prove to be a special animal.”

Lyons, who has researched feline genetics for more than 30 years, said studies like this also support his broader research goal of using cats as a biomedical model to study genetic diseases that affect both cats and people, such as polycystic kidney disease, blindness and dwarfism. .

“Comparative genetics and precision medicine play a key role in the ‘One Health’ concept, which means that anything we can do to study the causes of genetic diseases in cats or how to treat their ailments can be useful for one day treat humans with the same diseases. Lyons said. “I am building genetic tools, genetic resources that ultimately help improve the health of cats. When creating these tools, it is important to get a representative sample and understand the genetic diversity of cats around the world so that our genetic toolbox can be useful in helping cats around the world, not just in a specific region.” .

Throughout his career, Lyons has worked with cat breeders and research collaborators to develop comprehensive feline DNA databases that the scientific community can benefit from, including cat genome sequencing from felines around the world. in a study 2021Lyons and his colleagues found that the cat’s genomic structure is more similar to that of humans than almost any other non-primate mammal.

“Our efforts have helped stop the migration and transmission of inherited genetic diseases around the world, one example being polycystic kidney disease, as 38% of Persian cats had this disease when we first launched our genetic test. in 2004.” Lyons said. “Now that percentage has been reduced significantly thanks to our efforts, and our overall goal is to eradicate genetic diseases in cats in the future.”

Currently, the only viable treatment for polycystic kidney disease has unhealthy side effects, including liver failure. Lyons is currently working with researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara to develop a diet-based treatment trial for those with the disease.

“If those trials are successful, we could get humans to test it as a more natural and healthier alternative to taking a drug that can cause liver failure or other health problems,” Lyons said. “Our efforts will continue to help, and it feels good to be a part of this.”

“Random cat genetics support the cradle of cat domestication in the Near East” was recently published in Inheritance.

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