April 13, 2024

Wild appearance of Bengal cats from domestic DNA

Researchers at Stanford Medicine have discovered that the unique patterns and characteristics of Bengal cats are the result of selective breeding of genes from domestic cats, not necessarily from their wild ancestors, the Asian leopard cats.

Researchers studied hundreds of Bengal cats to discover the genetic origins of their leopard-like patterns and found that their appearance largely comes from domesticated cats.

Bengal cats are valued for their appearance; These pets’ exotically marbled and spotted coats make them look like small, elegant wildcats. But the origin of these coats – which is presumed to come from the genes of Asian leopard cats that were crossed with domestic cats – turns out to be less exotic.

Stanford Medicine researchers, in collaboration with Bengal cat breeders, discovered that the iridescent sheen and leopard patterns of Bengal cats can be attributed to genes from domestic cats that were aggressively selected after the cats were bred with wild cats.

“The majority of Bengal cat Close

The distinguishing characteristics of Bengal cats come from domestic genes rather than leopard cat ancestry, with selective breeding highlighting these characteristics.

Wild Origins

Barsh and his colleagues, including senior scientist Christopher Kaelin, PhD, use cats and other animals to study the genetics of physical traits. In previous studies, they identified genes responsible for coat color variation in tabby cats and the Abyssinian cat’s unique markings.

“The general question is how does genetic variation lead to variation in appearance,” Barsh said.
“This is a question that has all kinds of implications for different Bengal cat playing

Genetic analysis shows that the exotic appearance of Bengal cats is due to selected domestic genes, debunking myths about their wild heritage and improving breeding strategies.

Genetic Surprises

The Stanford Medicine team suspected that Bengal cats could provide them with an affordable way to investigate the genetics of wild cat colors and patterns that evolved naturally. But after sequencing 947 Bengal cat genomes, they discovered something surprising: There were no parts of the wild Asian leopard cat genomes that were found in all Bengal cats.

“Almost all Bengal cat breeders and owners have the idea that the domestic Bengal cat’s distinctive appearance must have come from leopard cats,” Barsh said. “Our work suggests that is not the case.”

Instead, genetic signatures suggested that Bengals’ unique appearance was the result of variations in genes that were already present in domestic cats.

The team found something similar when they looked specifically at “shine”: About 60% of all Bengal cats have particularly soft, iridescent fur that shines like gold in sunlight. A mutation in the gene Fgfr2, they showed, is responsible for the shine and comes not from leopard cats, but from domestic cats. Glitter and the underlying Fgfr2 mutation are almost specific to Bengal cats. Interestingly, the mutation reduces the activity of the protein encoded by Fgfr2, rather than rendering it inactive as many mutations do. This sheds light on how variations in genes can cause subtle changes in appearance, the researchers said.

Finally, Barsh and Kaelin’s group analyzed the genetics of “charcoal” Bengals, a rare subset of the breed with darker coloring. They discovered a leopard cat gene linked to charcoal color, but only when combined with the domestic cat genome. The leopard cat gene, known as One sip, essentially doesn’t work as well when mixed with housekeeping genes – a phenomenon known as genomic incompatibility. So, in leopard cats, One sip does not cause charcoal coloration, but the same gene in domestic cats does.

“Hybridization between different species can happen naturally and is responsible for the small amount of Neanderthal DNA found in many human genomes,” explained Barsh. “But the wild leopard cat and the domestic cat are more different from each other than humans are from chimpanzees, and it is remarkable to see how DNA from these distantly related species can exist and work together in a popular companion animal.”

A boost for biology and breeders

A better understanding of the genetic origins of Bengal cat traits is already helping Bengal breeders adjust the way they breed animals to create new colors and patterns. For the past 15 years, Barsh and Kaelin have worked closely with Bengal cat organizations and given talks at cat shows. They often return genetic and ancestry data to owners to help guide their breeding.

“Creators are extremely interested in our data,” said Kaelin. “They not only want to contribute their cats’ DNA, but they also want to be involved and help analyze the data and hear about our results. It has been a great collaboration and a true example of citizen science.”

The researchers say there are lessons to be learned about how powerful artificial selection can be, as the Bengal cat’s coat likely could have been selected without the help of the Asian leopard cat.

“People have this idea that we need access to these distantly related animals to create beautiful individuals and designer animals,” Barsh said. “But it turns out that all the diversity was already there, waiting in the domestic cat genome.”

Reference: “Ancestry Dynamics and Trait Selection in an Designer Cat Breed” by Christopher B. Kaelin, Kelly A. McGowan, Anthony D. Hutcherson, John M. Delay, Jeremiah H. Li, Sarah Kiener, Vidhya Jagannathan, Tosso Leeb, William J. Murphy and Gregory S. Barsh, March 25, 2024, Current Biology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.02.075

Scientists at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Gencove Inc.,

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