James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 16, 2009

Not Genetically Engineered: Domestic Cat

Filed under: Genetics — Tags: , , — James @ 5:29 pm

A non-transgenic cat. But then, so are all cats

A non-transgenic cat. But then, so are all cats so it wasn't a hard picture to find

Scientific Name: Felis silvestris ssp catus

Claimed Genetically Engineered Trait: Does not provoke allergic reactions (hypoallergenic)

The Reality: A company called Allerca used high thru-put screening to check lots and lots of cats to find one with a  broken copy of the gene that codes for one of the proteins people who are allergic to cats are most likely to react to.* After that they, presumably, used marker assisted breeding to introgress the broken gene copy into other cats, which they now sell for between $6,950 and $22,000.**

About Cats:

Siamese cat between two cool looking computers. Photo: Brian Landis, Flickr (click photo to view photostream)

Siamese cat between two cool looking computers. Photo: Brian Landis, Flickr (click photo to view photostream)

All of the felines in the world today shared a common ancestor between 10-15 million years ago. That’s comparable to the estimates of the most common ancestor of corn and sorghum two species of a plant that look much more similar than the house cat and the puma.

Cats with dark heads, tails, and legs (pattern associated with siamese cats) carry a mutant copy of a gene involved in the production of pigment. The gene can function normally, but only at slightly lower temperatures, and a cat’s extremities are generally bit cooler than its body. The coats of such cats will darken if they spend a lot of time outside during the winter, or, if you really wanted, you might be able to turn a siamese cat entirely white by keeping it in a sauna for months, though I’m not endorsing any attempt to verify that.

There’s a particular perspective of history that assigns the rise of western civilization to the cat.*** It goes something like this: After the rise of agriculture farmers were suddenly able to produce far more food than they needed to feed themselves. It was that surplus of food which first allowed people to specialize in things besides farming (everything from barrel making to science). But storing large amounts of grain would attract rats to eat the grain. And that’s where cats come in, as the earliest form of biological pest control. The story goes on to say that it was the awareness of the key role they played in the establishment of their civilization that lead to the worship of cats in ancient Egypt. It’s a fun story anyway.

*This is actually similar to the strategy used to discover soybeans less likely to provoke allergic reactions. Which I’m adding to my list of thing to write about in the future.

**$6,950 invested at 5% per year will earn $347.5 in interest each year. For comparison, Claratin (an anti-allergy drug) can be purchased at $.60 per day, or $220 a year. I’m told Claratin doesn’t actually do it for cat allergies. Too bad, this would be really funny if it were true.

***It falls apart when civilizations like the Incas and Mayans which rose entirely without cats but were still based on surpluses of food, primarily from corn and the potato, are considered.


  1. Speaking as someone who is allergic to cats, the non- (or at least hypo-) allergenic cat is a better deal than the Claritin — provided that the cats in question really don’t cause allergies. Claritin is better than nothing, but life with a normal cat and Claritin would still get unbearable pretty quick. The husband had a cat when we met, and although I like cats, and learned to take Claritin before going over, I still always wound up having asthma to one degree or another within a few hours.

    I can’t imagine being an allergic person who liked cats so well he’d pay $7K for one, though, never mind $22K. It’s only a cat, for fuck’s sakes.

    Comment by mr_subjunctive — November 16, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

  2. Good to know, I’ll modify my snark accordingly. I’m fortunate enough to mainly be bother by seasonal allergies (I would be allergic to plant pollen!) and for me, claritin was worked wonders with those.

    Comment by James — November 16, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

  3. Careful with that maize pollen… A lot of breeders/geneticists develop pretty severe reactions to it. One of our local breeders started having to carry an epi pen with her into the field half way into her career (following a mid-pollination trip to the E.R.).

    Don’t people usually spend 1 or 2k for purebred dogs anyway?

    Are they still selling those GFP zebra danios? They came out 5 years ago and were banned in Cali…

    Comment by Matt — November 16, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

  4. I remember GloFish. Their website is still active, so hopefully they’re still in business.

    Comment by James — November 16, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress

%d bloggers like this: