Leslie Lyons is a veterinarian and specialist in cat genetics. She is also a cat owner and general cat partisan who has been known to tease her colleagues who study dog genetics with the well-worn adage that “Cats rule. Dogs drool.”
That has not been the case with research money and attention to the genetics of disease in cats and dogs, partly because the number of dog breeds offers variety in terms of genetic ailments and perhaps because of a general bias in favor of dogs. But Dr. Lyons, a professor at the University of Missouri, says there are many reasons cats and their diseases are invaluable models for human diseases. She took up the cause of cat science this week in an article in Trends in Genetics.
“People tend to either love them or hate them, and cats are often underappreciated by the scientific community,” she writes. But, she says, in some ways the organization of the cat genome is much like the human genome, and cat genomics could help in the understanding of the vast amount of mammalian DNA that does not constitute genes, and is poorly understood.
Among the advances in veterinary medicine that have benefited humans, she pointed out that remdesivir, an important drug in combating Covid, was first successfully used against a cat disease caused by another coronavirus.
She is the director of the 99 Lives Cat Genome Sequencing Initiative and as part of that project, she and a group of colleagues, including Wes Warren at the University of Missouri and William Murphy at Texas A&M University, recently produced the most detailed genome of the cat to date, which surpasses the dog genome.
“For the moment,” Dr. Lyons said.
I spoke last week with Dr. Lyons, Dr. Warren and Dr. Murphy, who refer to themselves as Team Feline. Dr. Lyons was visiting Texas, and with two of her colleagues she talked about why the genomes of cats are important to medical knowledge.
I report on animal science, and over the years, I admitted to the members of Team Feline, I seem to have written more about dogs than cats. The dog-cat rivalry in genomic science is mostly a good-natured rivalry, but just to assess what I was getting myself into I first asked about the scientists’ nonscientific approach to cats and dogs.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
First, their personal preferences:
Dr. William Murphy: I do have cats and dogs as pets, but I prefer cats.
Dr. Wes Warren: I’m a dog owner. Unfortunately I’m allergic to cats.
Dr. Leslie Lyons: He has a very expensive dog that keeps having problems.
Why were you moved to write the article promoting the cause of cat science?
Dr. Lyons: Throughout my career, I’ve been trying to get people to recognize that our everyday pets have the same diseases as us and can really provide important information if we can understand what makes them tick a little bit better, how their genomes are constructed.
You have high quality genomes of several species of cats beyond the domestic cat?
Dr. Lyons: We already have the lions and tigers, the Asian leopard cat, Geoffroy’s cat, a half-dozen species with really, really good genomes that are even better than the dog genomes at this point in time.
Dr. Murphy: By far. It was actually better quality than the human reference genome until very recently. The goal is to have the complete encyclopedia of the cat’s DNA, so we can actually fully understand the genetic basis for all traits in the cat.
Dr. Lyons: For example the allergy gene that Wes is allergic to. We completely understand that gene now. We can maybe even knock it out of the cat to produce cats that are more hypoallergenic or at least understand what elicits the immune response better.
How are cat diseases a good model for human diseases?
Dr. Lyons: What we’re discovering is different species have different health problems. We should really be picking the right species.
Dr. Warren: We know that dogs get cancer more frequently, similar to ourselves. Cats don’t get cancer very often. And that’s a fascinating story of evolution. So are there signals or clues in the genome of the cat that allows us to zero in better on why cats get certain types of cancers and understand the differences among dogs, cats and humans.
How about the cats that are subjects of the research?
Dr. Lyons: Genomic research is fantastic because all we need is maybe a blood sample. And so once we have the blood sample, we don’t have to do experimentation on an animal. We’re actually observing what animals already have. We’re working with the diseases that are already there.
What about wild species?
Dr. Murphy: High quality genomes for wild cats can aid in their species survival plans and their recovery in the wild.
Dr. Lyons: We see half a dozen health problems in wild felids. We have a study of transitional cell carcinoma in fishing cats, inherited blindness in black-footed cats, polycystic kidney disease in Pallas’s cats. Snow leopards have terrible eye problems, probably because of inbreeding in zoos. So understanding their genomes can help us to stop those problems in the zoo populations, and that will help humans with the same conditions as well.
How about ancient DNA and cats? There’s been a lot of work on that in dogs. How is that progressing in cats?
Dr. Lyons: A couple of groups are moving forward with ancient DNA. I worked on some mummy cats and we showed that the mitochondrial DNA types that we found in the mummified cats are present more commonly in Egyptian cats today than they are anywhere else. So the cats of the pharaohs are the cats of present day Egyptians.
To switch gears: I’ve always been a dog person but I’ve been thinking about getting a cat. Any tips?
Dr. Lyons: Get two. They’ll be buddies. And give them something to scratch. Otherwise it is going to be your couch.