The researchers used DNA and tissue samples from feral cats in Northern California, along with small skin biopsies and blood samples from captive and wild South African and Namibian cheetahs. When they looked at the samples and analysed other data gathered by the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research and Stanford University they found
that the gene known as Taqpep is responsible for creating both the spots on the cheetahs and the stripes on the domestic tabby.
said researchers were particularly interested in what turns the mackerel pattern into a "blotched" tabby pattern. Mapping the "pedigree" of various cats allowed the researches to narrow the genetic code and find that it was based on chromosomes containing three large genes. Once they sequenced the genomes of two batches of tabbies, one with blotched coats and the other striped ones, they found that Taqpep was the culprit.
A New York Times
report quotes Dr. Stephen O'Brien from the National Laboratory for Cancer Research as saying
“Nobody had any idea what the genes were that were involved in these things. When the feline genome became available, we began to look for them.”
Dr. O'Brien told LiveScience
"What this is, is the first connection of a gene involved in pattern formation in cats to their molecular status, we know where the mutation is in this particular gene."
The researchers also found that a mutation of the Taqpep gene causes the blotches and stripes found in the rare South African king cheetah.
Dr. O'Brien says researchers believe that Taqpep is also associated with the immune system, telling LiveScience
"I think that probably there are other things to be discovered about this gene."