Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently led successful efforts to build the first genome of Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul), a small wild cat native to central Asia known for its snarling facial expression. Facing increasing challenges from climate change, habitat fragmentation and poaching, the cat had no genetic resources available to help with conservation prior to this study.
The study, published in NAR Genomics and BioinformaticsIt was led by Nicole Flack, a PhD candidate in the College of Veterinary Medicine, along with Christopher Faulk, a professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
The researchers used blood samples from Tater, a 6-year-old Pallas cat living at the Utica Zoo in New York, to build a high-quality diploid nuclear genome assembly, a representative map of the species’ genes.
The results of the study include confirmation that Pallas’s cat is more closely related to certain wild cat species and less related to domestic cat species than some previous studies have suggested.
An allele-specific methylation analysis, the first of its kind in cats, also sheds light on how gene expression is regulated in mammals through a process called genomic imprinting. Mammals inherit two copies of each gene from their parents; usually these copies are equally active, but imprinted genes have chemical tags that turn off one copy. These findings pave the way toward a deeper understanding of growth, development, and hybridization among cat species, which could have important implications for genetic diversity and conservation.
The genomic resources that the study produced provide a comprehensive genetic reference for conservation efforts working to track the health of wild populations and optimize breeding programs for captive cats.
“I hope our work helps with the conservation of Pallas’s cat. Genetic diversity is a key factor in the health and trajectory of animal populations, but it is difficult to study without anything to compare it to,” Flack said. “Our reference genome will be useful for monitoring Pallas’s cat population health, both in captive breeding programs and in the wild.”
These resources will enable future research not only on Pallas’s cat, but also on the health, disease, and physiology of domestic cats and other species, including human translation work. This is particularly true in the assessment of allele-specific methylation, because imprinting is a unique feature of genes shared among mammals and has significant implications for our understanding of human growth and development. But it has been chronically understudied due to limitations of existing technology, limitations that nanopore sequencing overcomes.
“Our small team was able to provide Tater’s high-quality diploid cat genome, including epigenetic information, using minimal financial and laboratory resources,” Faulk said. “We hope to serve as a model for human pathogen sequencing and conservation projects, especially by low-income groups with limited budgets.”
Funding for the project was provided by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Norn Group, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.
About the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
The University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine touches the lives of animals and people every day through educational, research, service and outreach programs. Established in 1947, the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine is the only veterinary college in Minnesota. Fully accredited, the university has graduated more than 4,000 veterinarians and hundreds of scientists. The college is also home to the Veterinary Medical Center, Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, Leatherdale Equine Center, and Raptor Center. Learn more at vetmed.umn.edu.
About the College of Food Sciences, Agriculture and Natural Resources
The University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) strives to inspire minds, nourish people, and sustainably enhance the natural environment. CFANS has a legacy of innovation, bringing discoveries to life through science and educating the next generation of leaders. Every day, students, teachers, and researchers use science to address the great challenges of the world today and tomorrow. CFANS offers an unparalleled breadth of experiential learning opportunities for students and the community, with 12 academic departments, 10 research and outreach centers across the state, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the Bell Museum of Natural History, and dozens of interdisciplinary centers. Learn more at cfans.umn.edu.