Scientists sequence the genome of Lil Bub, celebrity cat

Photo by Joyful Noise | CC BY-SA 4.0

With a couple of extra toes, a case of dwarfism, no teeth and a tongue that perpetually hangs out of her mouth, Lil Bub is one of the Internet’s most beloved animals. She (and her owner) have spent years as advocates for animal shelters, inspiring tens of thousands of dollars in donations to shelters. Now, her genome has been sequenced, providing insight into feline health that could apply to humans, too.

A genome is the entirety of a living being’s DNA. It contains all the information that makes us who we are. Unraveling, or sequencing, a genome allows scientists to look at all the genetic information that creates various traits, letting them distinguish what makes an individual unique.

In an interview with Science Magazine, the authors of a paper on the project shared that they were inspired by a documentary about Lil Bub, and thought her celebrity status might help their idea come to fruition.

“For good or for bad, celebrities attract attention, whether it’s human celebrities or animal celebrities,” said co-author Leslie Lyons. “We’ve tried to get other celebrity cats to jump on board before, but Lil Bub was the bravest of them all.”

In Lil Bub’s genome, researchers found two mutations, or genetic abnormalities, of note. The first was a mutation in the Sonic hedgehog gene (yes, it’s actually named after the iconic blue video game hero), which has been previously associated with multiple toes in cats (specifically, those belonging to American writer Ernest Hemingway).

The second was a variation of the gene TNFRSF11A, which is linked to a rare disease called osteopetrosis (different from osteoporosis) that causes dense yet fragile bones and short stature. Before the project, the researchers had assumed that Lil Bub’s various afflictions were related, but were surprised by their very different causes.

“Humans have this disease, too, and knowing more about how this mutation functions might help lead to a tailored therapy with precision medicine that affects the gene,” Lyons said. “It also shows why animal genetics is important. In human genetics, there’s a still a huge number of variants of unknown significance, which basically means you don’t know if they’re benign or not. That’s one of the things our project is trying to do. If you look at the genetic information in cats and dogs, that might tell you a particular mutation is found all the time in cats and they’re perfectly fine, so it probably is a benign mutation.”

Lil Bub’s genome was sequenced after a crowdfunding project placed $8,000 in the hands of geneticists led by Darío Lupiáñez (Max-Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine), Daniel Ibrahim (Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics) and Orsolya Symmons (University of Pennsylvania).

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