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Feb 19, 2014 11:41 AM EST

Calico Cats' Unique X Chromosome Could One Day Help Regulate Inherent Obesity

The future of helping people lose weight could be directly related to the unique chromosome structure of calico cats.

According to Discovery News, scientists found that the cat gets its distinctive fur coat from two different color genes on their X chromosomes. Calico cats have black and orange patches of fur thanks to random silencing of one of those chromosomes in each cell.

"The inactivation of one out of two X chromosomes in females is an enormously important epigenetic process," study researcher Elizabeth Smith, of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), said in a press release. "Uncovering how only one X chromosome is inactivated will help explain the whole process of epigenetic control, meaning the way changes in gene activity can be inherited without changing the DNA code. It can help answer other questions such as if and how traits like obesity can be passed down through generations."

This method of silencing, or inactivation, is of particular interest to Smith and her colleagues. Using "soft x-ray tomography," imaging technology that creates a 3-D view of a cell's makeup, the group was able to observe specific chromosomes.

"We obtained high-resolution, 3-dimensional views of the intact nucleus and, by using a prototype cryo fluorescence microscope along with the x-ray microscope, we were able to identify one specific chromosome, the inactive X chromosome of female cells," Smith said in the release.

"We were able to show a remarkable substructural organization of this chromosome, which consists of three distinct domains of differing amounts of chromatin."

The researchers were amazed to discover the chromosomal complexity of the calico cat's genes, as each chromosome had several of its own parts. The research can help scientists learn more about the human X chromosome, which is known to be related to fat distribution.

With the ability to study these X chromosomes, scientists may one day be able to regulate the genes passed down to a person that may influence future obesity. That day may be far away, but this research has started the process.

"A cell's nucleus contains the genetic code, its DNA. But while the structure of the DNA was determined more than 50 years ago, and we're rapidly determining the position of specific genes on chromosomes, no one had visualized the DNA within an intact nucleus - an unfixed, hydrated whole cell," said Smith. "We decided to try."

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