What Calico Cats Can Teach Us About Obesity

02/28/2014 03:26 pm ET | Updated Feb 28, 2014
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House cats -- in all their notoriously lazy glory -- may actually help scientists figure out how to control obesity in humans.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco are looking to calico cats, known for their orange and black patchwork fur, to better understand “gene silencing”, the ability of a cell to prevent the expression of a certain gene. Scientists hope the research may reveal how traits in humans -- like obesity -- may be turned on and off the same way color traits are controlled in the fluctuating pattern of a calico’s coat.

In a presentation earlier this month at the annual Biophysical Society Meeting in San Francisco, lead study author Elizabeth Smith explained that calico cats, which are nearly always female, have an orange fur color gene on one X chromosome and a black fur color gene on the other X chromosome. In a genetic anomaly, the chromosomes are turned on and off at random, creating the splotchy fur pattern.

Unlocking the mystery of the calico’s chromosomes could lead to advances in understanding how human traits are passed on and expressed, ultimately allowing us to exert control over them.

"Uncovering how only one X chromosome is inactivated will help explain the whole process of epigenetic control, meaning the way changes in gene activity can be inherited without changing the DNA code,” Smith said in a press release. “It can help answer other questions such as if and how traits like obesity can be passed down through generations."

Body fat distribution traits are associated with the X chromosome, according to Discovery News, as are several other disorders and diseases, including intersex conditions, breast cancer and hemophilia.

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