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Study shows how cats get their patches

Scientists have discovered how the distinctive piebald patches seen in black and white cats and some horses are formed in the womb.

The findings could shed light on medical conditions that occur early in development, such as holes in the heart, which are caused by cells not moving to the right place as an embryo develops.

Surprising results

Researchers set out to learn how pigment cells behave in mice.

They found that these cells move and multiply randomly during early development rather than follow instructions.

Their findings contradict the existing theory that piebald patterns form on animals’ coats because pigment cells move too slowly to reach all parts of the embryo before it is fully formed.

Mathematical modelling

The study, by mathematicians and geneticists, shows that there is no complicated cell-to-cell communication to send the cells in a particular direction.

The same mathematical model could now be used to follow other types of cell during early development.

Researchers at the Universities of Bath and Edinburgh, who carried out the study, say it could help them better understand conditions linked to early cell positioning.

We already know cells move through the developing skin to create pigment. We have discovered that they move and multiply at random which is not what was expected. Using a mathematical model we were then able to show that this simple process could explain piebald patterns.

Dr Richard MortResearch Fellow at the University's MRC Human Genetics Unit

About the study

The research was published in Nature Communications.

It was funded by the Medical Research Council, Medical Research Scotland, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reductions of Animals in Research.