Researchers from the Universities of Bath, Edinburgh and Oxford say they have unlocked the mystery of how the cat got its spots. Jim Drury reports.
These cats look like they've got the cream but how did they get their patchy fur? In fact the phenomenon is caused by a disease....albeit a benign one. Piebaldism is the result of mutation in a gene called Kit. It's seen in cats, dogs, horses, and cows. Occasionally human hair is affected. Melanocyte cells in the early embryo fail to migrate correctly, causing regions of the skin and hair to lack pigment. British mathematical biologist Dr Christian Yates led a study which challenges conventional thinking on why this happens. SOUNDBITE (English) DR CHRISTIAN YATES, MATHEMATICAL BIOLOGIST AT UNIVERSITY OF BATH, SAYING: "Traditionally people thought that cells didn't make it to the front of embryos to pigment the front of the belly because they just weren't migrating fast enough; and actually what we've been able to show through our studies is that actually, if anything, cells in piebald animals migrate faster but they're just not proliferating enough." In the study's first stage, biologists studied how mouse embryo cells were moving and dividing. Their biological hypothesis was then transferred to a mathematical model. SOUNDBITE (English) DR CHRISTIAN YATES, MATHEMATICAL BIOLOGIST AT UNIVERSITY OF BATH, SAYING: "What we've been able to tease out from the mathematical model is actually it's not necessarily that these cells are migrating in a directed way. Actually these cells are diffusing, there's no direction to their migration. So it's like when you put a drop of milk into a cup of coffee that you haven't stirred. Eventually that milk will be spread evenly throughout your coffee, and these cells are doing the same sort of thing - they're moving in an undirected manner and eventually, slowly, they manage to fully colonise this domain of this animal, so that they fully pattern the skin." Piebaldism is one of a group of defects called Neurocristopathies, some of which manifest themselves in deafness, heart problems, and cancer of the nervous system. The study, published in Nature Communications, could help scientists better understand such serious conditions......now they've told us how Kitty here got her spots.