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A new article suggests that cats have been underutilized in studies of genetic disease and that studying their genomes, which are structured similarly to humans', could yield new treatments.

Cats have genomes that are structured in much the same way that humans’ are, and an article published this week in the journal Trends in Genetics argues this unique quality has been underutilized by scientists who have more commonly studied mice and dogs, reports Katherine J. Wu for the Atlantic.

“Other than primates, the cat-human comparison is one of the closest you can get,” in terms of genome organization, study author Leslie Lyons, a veterinarian specializing in cat genetics at the University of Missouri, tells the Atlantic.

"Using cats in research is really overlooked, since people don't realize the advantages," adds Lyons.

Cats can teach us about human genetics and precision medicine

In a report by Alex Fox in The Smithsonian, cats’ genomic similarity makes them more straightforward models for studying human diseases. It could also help scientists understand the genetic dark matter of our genomes—that is, non-coding DNA that doesn’t provide instructions for making proteins yet still comprises some 95 percent of the human genome.

The dog or mouse genome have rearranged chromosomes that are quite different than humans, but the domestic cat has genes that are about the same size as humans, as well as a genome that, like humans, is very organized and conserved. 

Lyons writes in a statement that cats could also play a role in precision medicine for genetic diseases, in which instead of treating the symptoms, researchers fix the actual gene and what the gene does. For example, certain breeds of cats are prone to the genetic illness polycystic kidney disease, which also afflicts humans. Lyons writes that if we could treat this disease with precision medicine in cats, we could apply those learnings to us.

"As we discover that perhaps animals have more similar spacing between genes and the genes are in the same order, maybe that will help us to decipher what's going on with humans," Lyons says. "Working with a primate is on the expensive side, but a cat's affordability and docile nature make them one of the most feasible animals to work with to understand the human genome."

Lyons and her collaborators have also recently published the most detailed cat genome ever sequenced, reports James Gorman for the New York Times. This new genome is even more detailed than the most exhaustively sequenced dog genome.

Per the Atlantic, cats are unlikely to replace mice, which are cheaper to breed and house, as the go-to lab mammal. But as Gita Gnanadesikan, a canine researcher at the University of Arizona, tells the Atlantic, the choice of which animals’ genes are worth studying doesn’t have to be either or. “In genetics, there’s this tension: Do you try to learn everything you can about a small number of organisms, or do you branch out and try to learn little bits about a larger number of species?” Gnanadesikan tells the Atlantic. “I think one of the answers to that is just … yes.”