1. ITV Report

How the kitten got its spots and what it means for medicine

The discovery could help scientists understand other medical conditions Photo: Clara Molden/PA

Scientists have discovered how cats and some horses get distinctive piebald patches - and it could prevent serious health defects.

Defective versions of a gene called 'kit' reduce the rate at which cells multiply, giving the animal a white tummy because there are too few of them to cover the whole body.

Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

Their findings debunk an existing theory that patches form because pigment cells move too slowly to reach all parts of the developing embryo.

Researchers at the Universities of Bath and Edinburgh, who carried out the study, say the way that black and white patches develop on unborn kittens could improve understanding of some congenital health conditions linked to early cell positioning.

For example, holes in the heart are caused by cells not moving to the right place as an embryo develops, in a similar process which gives some cats their distinctive black and white patches.

What we have found is counter intuitive. Previously it was thought that the defective kit gene slowed cells down but instead we've shown that it actually reduces the rate at which they multiply.

There are too few pigment cells to populate the whole of the skin and so the animal gets a white belly."

– Dr Christian Yates, Bath University

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.