Not too shabby

One type of cat breed looks so "silky" for a genetic reason

It starts before they even have fur.

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You know a tabby cat when you see one.

Trademark dark stripes and an M on the forehead are what make these felines distinguishable from their peers.

“Tabby” used to refer to a kind of silk taffeta, reports Merriam-Webster.

This fur pattern can be seen in a number of breeds — from fluffy felines like the Maine Coon to shorthairs like the Abyssinian.

But the secrets of how tabbies get their signature look are just starting to come to light.

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Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications in September 2021, a team of researchers describes the genetic underpinnings that give tabbies their patterned coats.

Kaelin et. al./Nature

Scientists analyzed the embryos of feral cats — specifically looking at their skin during different stages of development...

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Previous studies established that melanin produced by hair follicles can determine hair or fur color.

But it wasn’t clear how early this process starts...

It turns out the pattern of a cat’s fur can be detected on its skin while it’s still developing.

A gene called Dickkopf (DKK4) is likely the primary influence of whether skin cells will produce light or dark fur.

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Some patches of skin cells become thicker — indicating that they will produce darker fur.

As this embryo develops, its darkening stripes on the skin indicate where dark fur will later grow.

Kaelin et. al./Nature

Eizark et. al./Genetics Society of America

Tabbies that don’t have the classic stripe pattern have a mutation of the DKK4 gene that makes their coats appear slightly different.

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The authors write that these findings could help explain how big cats in the wild, such as tigers and cheetahs, get their patterned coats as well.

“Our work identifies molecular candidates for this process in the establishment of tabby patterns ... and provides a genomic framework to explore natural selection for diverse pattern types in wild felids.”

Kaelin et. al., study authors

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