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Researchers from the US, Brazil, South Africa, China and Namibia have worked together to solve a feline mystery that sounds like one of Kipling’s Just So stories - how the king cheetah got his spots, or rather, stripes. Regular cheetahs are covered with small dark spots, while king cheetahs have thick stripes and blotches over their coats, even though they are actually the same species. Writing in the journal Science, the team have tracked down the single gene that turns a spotty cheetah into a stripy one, and it turns out to be the same one responsible for the difference between stripy mackerel domestic tabby cats and spotty ones.
Called Taqpep, a full version of the gene gives tabby cats a stripy mackerel coat, while a mutated version gives them spots. In the case of cheetahs, a different mutation is responsible for the king cheetah’s coat pattern. Further research revealed that Taqpep probably controls zones within the animal’s skin in which cells called melanocytes produce melanin - the dark pigment responsible for their spots or stripes. Faults in the gene lead to different shaped zones, resulting in different coat patterns - no Just So story required.