In their quest to figure out what causes the markings on a rare striped cheetah found only in sub-Saharan Africa, scientist sought to answer a basic question: How do patterns like stripes and spots on mammals arise?
"It's kind of surprising how little is known," said lead author Dr. Greg Barsh, emeritus professor of genetics and pediatrics at Stanford University.
"Until now, there's been no obvious biological explanation for cheetah spots or the stripes on tigers, zebras or even the ordinary house cat."
The researchers tested DNA, tissue, skin and blood samples of various large and small cats, including feral felines in northern California and wild and captive cheetahs in Namibia and South Africa. They also used as a reference the whole-genome sequence of the domestic cat, which was mapped in 2007.
They found that a gene they called Taqpep played a role in both tabby stripes and cheetah spots.
"Mutation of a single gene causes stripes to become blotches, and spots to become stripes," Barsh said.
The rare cheetah that sports stripes, originally thought to be a distinct species, is a result of that genetic mechanism being "disrupted."
The findings were published Friday in Science Magazine.