(c) iStockphoto.com/fotovampir
(c) iStockphoto.com/fotovampir

King Wu of Zhou the Fifth and Empress Li Lihuana, now living in Philadelphia, Pa., were recently joined together at a joyous celebration that was followed by much speculation as to when they might start a family. Their adopted relatives at least were assured the pair had a good chance of siring healthy offspring. You see, this was a coupling of Himalayan cats and not royal humans, and their relationship had already received a veterinary thumbs up, thanks to new breakthroughs in feline DNA research.

Perhaps the biggest boost in this scientific field was the recent announcement that the domestic cat genome was sequenced. But what exactly does that mean, and how could it affect you and your cat now and in the future?

The ABC’s of DNA

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DNA is like a somewhat secretive code made up of words that consist of only four letters: G, C, A and T. Like lottery numbers, the letters combine in all sorts of different ways in the genome, which is an individual’s full set of DNA. Each “word” contains instructions that help to make and run each and every cell in the living creature’s body. The individual could be a human or all other species on the planet, including your cat.

“Cats are the greatest predators that ever lived,” says Stephen O’Brien, PhD, who led the Cat Genome Project. Dr. O’Brien, a scientist at the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., and a feline fancier himself was thrilled when he and his team recently announced that the domestic cat genome had at last been sequenced. He explains that he and his team identified the order of the DNA words, or building blocks, which was like “decoding” the secret genetic recipe for what makes up a cat. The arduous process entailed the identification of a whopping 20, 285 genes in the feline genome, proving that cats are indeed complex critters.

Immediate Benefits

As exemplified by the planned, guilt-free joining of the two Himalayan cats from Philly, pet owners like you can already benefit from the DNA secret code unravelings. Randall Smith, spokesman for DDC Veterinary, a division of DNA Diagnostics Center in Fairfield, Ohio, oversaw King Wu of Zhou’s DNA paternity testing. “Breeders like his owners, who wish to remain anonymous, are really fueling advances in this field,” Smith says. “If an animal is a purebred, we can help to confirm and trace back its family lineage, but there are big health benefits too.”

Smith explains that his laboratory also tested the royal, handsome feline for a deadly disorder among Himalayan, Persian and other exotic cats called polycystic kidney disease, or PKD. This inherited disease causes cysts to form on a cat’s kidneys. Eventually PKD may lead to a painful death. King Wu’s tests came back completely negative, meaning that neither his father nor his mother carried the PKD gene, so he’s now good to go for breeding umpteen litters of PKD-free kittens, so long as his mates also test negative.

PKD is the primary DNA health-related test for felines now, but Smith predicts that others will soon be possible. “Cats have been slow to come on to DNA testing, perhaps because more dogs are purebreds and are easier to study for genetically inherited disorders,” he says. “But advances likely will come very quickly, since many hereditary disorders in felines mirror similar ones in people.”

Cats May Benefit Human Health

One amazing realization made possible through the recent advances in genetics is how similar cats are to humans on the DNA level. In fact, all mammals that have had their genomes deciphered—cows, dogs, mice, chimpanzees, rats and more—share similar chromosomes, which are the specialized structures that hold genes in each cell. For researchers, such comparisons are like analyzing the primary ingredients of a bunch of different cookies. One may be peanut butter and another chocolate chip, but the basic formula remains the same, so they’re all cookies. In this case, a comparable formula encodes for all mammals.

This story was published on Gadzoo.com via The Daily Cat.