BP: Do you know why cats were domesticated?
Mike: It’s a good question. Cats started hanging around human settlements around the time that agricultural technology was being developed by human society and we think that cats were very interested in some other rodents that may havebeen feeding on the grains. It’s a question of what made a cat more likely to hang around people and that people would tolerate having these cats around. Because they’re providing some ability to take the rodents. That’s sort of the broad question. When we look at the genes we can say a few things about the differences between Wildcats and domestic cats. But it might be only part of the story because we can’t say a lot about the behavior just yet. We know the genes are different, to say the behavior is different is another story.
BP: Do domesticated and wild cats evolve simultaneously? While one population became domesticated, another became another wild species .
Mike: Yes, I think so. Evolution is always occurring on different populations, there is always selection, there is always genetic mutation in populations and there’s always differential reproduction. So different cats had more offspring compared to others because they are more successful at getting food that make them successful . There is probably up a long period of time when some cats where becoming more you used to being around human populations, whereas other cats would not want to come around a human population, these would be the cats would remain wild .The ones that were be more likely to come and approach humans would be more likely to become domesticated populations that we have today.
BP: Can we observe evolution?
Mike: We would have traces of it within looking at the differences between the genes. We can try to time the rate of differences between different populations and we can observe mutations that would change the structure of the protein. So in that way, yes we can observe change over time which is the definition about evolution.
BP: What are the application areas of the “cat genome project” ?
Mike:One of the things that we touched down was we might be able to detect common patterns of genetic differences across different domesticated mammals. So we point to these neural crest cells that migrate and are involved in different structures in tissues within the body once the embryos developing. Some other genes that we point out in the domestic cat that are different from Wildcat are involved in these neurocrest cells. The migration occurs in the neurocrest cells so one of the overarching theory is that tries to unify the way mammals have become domesticated, points specifically to these neural crest cells and because these findings that we have fall in line with the hypothesis and that might be one of the implications of this research. We could look at other domesticated mammals and also try to find similar signals that are involved in these neurocrest cells perhaps that points to a common mechanism by which animals tolerate human and become more tame and less fearful.
BP: What about common diseases that felines and humans share?
Mike: One of the goals of the research mostly with our collaborators, they look at diseases within different cats, in especially related cats that would have genetic diseases. So this could be blindness or feline immunodeficiency virus, some of kidney diseases that have commonalities with human diseases. Part of the goal is to use the cat genome and look at these cats that have these diseases and try to figure out what is causing those diseases. If there’s a genetic component, different mutations within genes are in regulatory regions that we could then say something about why the diseases forming and how we might have to treat it, not only in cats but also humans.
BP: I have read an article about HIV vaccine that Stephen J O ‘Brien is working on. Since he is one of the researchers in this project, I wonder if there is a vaccination for FIV or HIV that could be used.
Mike: It’s not my area of specialty but I I don’t think there is any vaccine yet. I know they’re still working on. Some of the work with HIV is involved with primates and SIV, the simian immunodeficiency virus. But I think it’s tied into the same line of researches as FIV. I know Stephen O’Brien is doing more work on FIV.
BP: Is domestication result of evolution? Are domesticated animals more intelligent than their wild counterparts?
Mike: It’s a tricky question right because domesticated animals typically serve purpose sure for human society. We had farm animals that are used for agriculture, and we have service animals that are used to perform different behaviors that are useful for us and we have companion animals like like dogs and cats that act as pets and companions.
So,I think there’s probably a range of differences between different types of domesticated animals. We can’t say that one type of domesticated animal is more intelligent than a wild ancestor. Because that’s hard to measure. I think each time that animals become domesticated, it’s likely for a different reason, as serve to benefit. Some human population wanted to domesticate them.
BP: But for cats, it’s said to be different. I read they were domesticated by their own will.
Mike: This is the self domestication hypothesis. Some people have suggested that that catsthemselves domesticated as well. Because they are feeding on rodents and taking grains from from the storage facilities
It’s quite possible. I think it is tricky to set up tests to determine how that would happen. But some of the interesting experiments for domestication are occurring with the silver foxes.
Some foxes are less fearful than human, so these foxes are bred. You notice the same sort of morphological features like floppy ears, white ? Pigmentation patterns
BP: Is it possible to simulate domestication?
Mike: I think different groups have been trying to do that. There are other studies with rats similar to fox studies. They breed for either they are fearful or tame. This is trying tosimulate domestication with an organism that historically was never domesticated, the rat. I don’t think rat would ever be considered domesticated mammal.It’s an interesting experiment and they are actually looking at the genetics of these different populations that have been bred to see if there are actually gene differences between the tame rats and the ones that are more fearful what they call sometimes aggressive.
BP: Do you think it is possible to reverse domestication?
Mike: That’s a good question. You know sometimes when cats aren’t exposed to humans at a certain critical point at their development, they become more fearful of humans . We call these animals feral. They were domesticated but then they’re wild . They can survive on their own without humans contributing. I suppose, if you have feral populations at where cats are reproducing on their own and can survive In that sense yes that’s sort of reversal of the domestication process.
BP: But if I find a kitten of a feral mother cat, s/he does not show the same fearfulness…
Mike: There is a certain critical stage of development so likely between being a young kitten and being a more fully grown cat. If there’s no exposure to humans, I assume they’d be more likely to be very fearful of any human.
BP: Yes, but what you are saying about kittens is also true for human babies who are raised by wolves :P, not by people loving them.
Mike: I think as primates we are social animals. We need social interactions to develop properly and domesticated animals especially dogs and cats also need the social interaction with humans to let them know that that there’s no harm that will come from interacting with us .