COLUMBIA, Mo 8/30/14 (Beat Byte) -- A Columbia kitty has made medical history.
With genetic material from Cinnamon, a female Abyssinian cat who lives and works at Mizzou's College of Veterinary Medicine, 26 genetics researchers from the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Portugal, and Spain this month announced they have finally sequenced the entire cat genome, coiled strands of DNA and RNA that determine the characteristics of life.
In the works for nearly a decade, the Feline Genome Project promises help with human diseases including AIDS, leukemia, muscular dystrophy, polycystic kidney disease, and some forms of blindness. Cinnamon was specifically bred to develop retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that famously afflicts Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn.
Domestic cats share "nearly 250 genetic diseases analogous to human disorders," the cat genome team -- which includes Mizzou veterinary ophthalmology professor Kristina Narfstrom, DVM, PhD -- explains in their August paper for the journal Gigascience. "Feline infectious agents offer powerful natural models of deadly human diseases, which include feline immunodeficiency virus, feline sarcoma virus and feline leukemia virus."
An oft-repeated analogy likens the genome to a book. Chromosomes are chapters; genes are words; DNA and RNA are individual letters. Sequencing the genome is analogous to finding the type and location of every letter in the book. Since each cell in the body contains at least one copy of the book -- the genome -- knowing how many times the letter "A" recurs, and where, is powerful information.
Understanding the cat genome will better help geneticists correlate DNA damage to disease. A deletion of DNA at one point in the genome might cause blindness, for instance, just like deleting the letter A from every word in a book would create gibberish. Adding or substituting DNA anywhere along the genome can have similar harmful effects, the same way adding or changing letters in a book could destroy its meaning and contents.
First reported in 2007 when it was partially sequenced, Cinnamon's genome includes 21,865 genes that code for proteins that determine everything from hair color to personality. Though she has been in the spotlight since that first report, Cinnamon has two lower-profile male partners -- Boris, from St. Petersburg, Russia; and Silvester, a European wildcat whose DNA the scientists compared to the two domestic cats.