First genome for Pallas’s cat built by University of Minnesota researchers

MINNEAPOLIS — Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently created the world’s first genetic map for the “world’s grumpiest cat.”

The Pallas’s cat, a small wild cat native to Central Asia, is facing growing challenges from climate change and poaching, but information uncovered in the study may help with conservation efforts.

Using blood sample from the Utica Zoo’s 6-year-old Pallas’s cat named Tater, researchers constructed a representative map of genes for the species.

Doctoral candidate Nicole Flack led the study along with Christopher Faulk, a professor in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences.

Pallas cat

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Why did you choose the Pallas’s cat as your subject?

FLACK: It was kind of a lucky opportunity, mostly. So we have some collaborators at the Utica Zoo in New York, and they have a Pallas’s cat. Obviously they’re all over the internet. People are quite aware of them. And we noticed that they don’t have a reference set of chromosomes at all that people would need to use to study their DNA. So we reached out to these collaborators at Utica Zoo and they were happy to send us some samples and kind of went from there. 

How did you conduct your research?

FLACK: [Utica Zoo] mailed us a blood sample that was collected just on kind of a routine health exam for the cat. The cat that we worked with, his name is Tater… They mailed some blood to us from one of Tater’s health exams. And then we used a kind of unique newer DNA sequencing technology called Oxford Nanopore sequencing. This is a method where you do it here in our lab rather than having to send it out to somebody else. It’s a very cool new technology. That kind of turns the DNA in the blood into stuff that we can work with in files on the computer. And then from there, we tested a variety of different assembler programs and then kind of quality tested them against each other with some parameters, picked the best two and then merge them together and then did downstream stuff from there. 

What kind of challenges is the Pallas’s cat facing?

FLACK: I would say the main threats to them that I know of are habitat fragmentation. They have a very wide range across Central Asia, but those ranges are in kind of these little isolated pockets that kind of get encroached on by human activity. Another issue is rodenticide use for rodent control in places where they’re closer to people. So if they eat a rodent that has been poisoned, then that will harm them. So there’s there’s human threats. Climate change also will affect their prey availability. 

How will this information help with conservation efforts? 

FLACK: The reason to have one of these reference genomes for a species is that so when someone else, for example, collects blood on on a wild Pallas’s cat, the DNA that comes out of that sample is very fragmented… The cells are being broken and it’s all kind of broken up, which is normal, but you but you use the reference to kind of reorganize it back into its original shape and figure out, is there a mutation in this gene? Or have things changed in other ways? So that’s really what it is, is a resource for other scientists to use when they’re studying Pallas’s cat by having something to compare their Pallas’s cat to.

Manul or Pallas's cat, Otocolobus manul, cute wild cat from Asia.

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How does your research apply to other species?

FLACK: A lot of the way that Pallas’s cat research would help other species like other cats or humans, is through what’s called comparative genomics. And so all that really means is that you’re looking at kind of the chromosomes of this species and comparing it to the chromosomes of that species to see if there’s associations with like different traits that matter for health. For example, Pallas’s cats are very prone to a disease that domestic cats get called toxoplasmosis. So understanding their susceptibility to that could help us with domestic cats. 

What is the importance of genetic diversity?

FLACK: Genetic diversity is, it’s a part of variation. That’s an adaptive thing. So, a good example is crops, like agriculture, when all of the plants are very genetically similar to each other, like we often do now, one pest that gets one of the plants is likely to be able to get all of them. Where if there’s genetic diversity, there are going to be some individuals that are a little more resilient to certain threats and that helps the population survive through kind of different challenges. 

So with Pallas’s cat, for example, having high genetic diversity in their population, could help them adapt to like having to change their food sources a little bit with climate change or having to change as their environment changes, the more genetically diverse they are, the more likely that somebody is going to be able to handle that, which is good.

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