Changing Planet

A Conversation with World Famous Cat Geneticist—Dr. Leslie Lyons

27456Dr. Leslie Lyons is a world famous cat geneticist.  So you might surmise that she studies inheritable diseases in cat lineages or hereditary traits expressed in different cat breeds like coat color. Well, she and her students, staff, and colleagues study both health conditions and coat color because the same mutations that have influence over genetic disorders also influence physical appearance. 

Dr. Lyon’s laboratory, which was popularly known as the “Lyon’s Den” at UC Davis recently relocated to the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine in Columbia to continue ground breaking research in feline genetics. It may also have been renamed the “Tiger’s Lair” after the school’s mascot?


Jordan: Did you really rename your laboratory?

Dr. Lyons: Not really no.  This was a fun play on words.  My father sometimes played around and answered the phone by saying “Lyons Den” – so I adapted for a fun name for the lab.  People remember it.  Then, we moved to the University of Missouri, their mascot is Truman the Tiger.  Thus, the article that announced our arrival was entitled “Lyons’ Den enters the Tiger’s Lair”!

We call ourselves the Feline Genetics Laboratory.

Jordan: Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Dr. Lyons: I was born and raised in Uniontown, Pennsylvania – hence a big sports fan – Pirates, Steelers and Penguins.  I went to Uniontown High School and then to the University of Pittsburgh for bachelors of science degree in Biochemistry.  I was working in a genetics laboratory in the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, so continued on to get my master’s degree and doctorate degree in Human Genetics.  I started my post-doctoral career in comparative genetics at the National Cancer Institute, the then Laboratory of Viral Carcinogenesis, which was later renamed the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity.  At the NCI, I became involved with cats and have never looked back.  I was recruited to the University of California – Davis in 1999 and now in 2013 to the University of Missouri – Columbia as the Gilbreath McLorn Endowed Professor of Comparative Medicine.

indexJordan: Our genetic code is comprised of sequences of nucleotides of DNA or RNA. Any alterations in these sequences are what we refer to as mutations.  Mutations are not only responsible for diseases that manifest in people and animals, but they also influence phenotypes— our physical appearance.  So it is no surprise that Dr. Lyon’s feline genetics lab is not only known for developing DNA tests for insidious feline diseases, but for understanding the inheritance of coat color in cats.

So, which came first? I imagine there is more funding available for examining feline models of human diseases or at least studying cat diseases for the benefit of these popular companion animals than there is for the study of coat color?

Dr. Lyons: Coat color and disease studies really all go hand in hand as often a gene that controls a simple coat color in cats, may have a slightly different mutation in humans and cause a more devastating disease.  We found this recently by identifying the gene that causes the Cornish Rex hair coat – same gene causes atrichia (no hair) and severe dental abnormalities in humans.  The first mutations identified in cats were for diseases that are also found in humans – childhood diseases, such as Duchene muscular dystrophy, gangliosidosis, and mucopolysaccharidosis.

When we study traits that affect appearance, we are not always just studying a coat color or coat type, but the mechanisms as to how that gene functions, which happens to cause a coat color or fur type in cats.  The gene that causes black in cats’ coats for example, Agouti (Agouti-signaling protein, ASIP), can cause obesity in mice!  The Tabby gene causes the classic – blotched pattern on cats – but this is really more interesting as to how this gene makes cells communicate and migrate in relationship to one another.  But, overall, the goal is to improve human and cat health and to study genes that are related to diseases!

Jordan: You are definitely a cat lover. I’m a “latent felinophile.” But we both have an affinity for black cats. You, in fact, own a black cat.  Can you explain a bit about cat coat genetics and melanism in particular?  Perhaps in doing so you can help dismiss this notion that black cats are witches incarnate?

Dr. Lyons: The only different between a brown tabby cat and a black cat is 2 nucleotides of DNA missing in the gene sequence for Agouti in the black cat.  They must be homozygous, having 2 copies of the deletion, to be black.  Black cats still even have their stripes but now they blend in with the background fur color!  In domestic cats, melanism is recessive, in wild felids, such as Jaguars, a different genes causes black.  The gene, melanocortin receptor-1 (MCR1) has a mutation that acts in a dominant fashion, thus only one copy is needed, and the cats are black.  Like domestics, the wild felids also still have their spots.

“You need a lot more genetic change to turn a human (witch) into a black cat, maybe a 20% difference, so, this minor change within a cat is really insignificant to make a brown tabby black.” – Dr. Lyons

Jordan: What are some of the achievements of your laboratory that you are most proud of and would like to share with us?

Dr. Lyons: One of our first major achievements in the laboratory was the identification of the mutation for polycystic kidney disease (PKD) in the Persian family of cats.  Approximately 30% of Persians around the world at the time had PKD and the most popular group of cats by far is the Persian grouping of cats (Persians, Exotic Shorthairs, Selkirk Rex, Scottish Fold and British Shorthairs).  These cats all have PKD caused by one mutation.  PKD is also one of the most common inherited diseases in  humans too!  But, most families of PKD patients have their own mutation, thus many PKD mutations are known, even some caused by different genes.  The cat is a significant model for this disease to develop gene and drug therapies – which do not exist in humans.

Other cool things – we were involved with proving the first cloned cat, CC, was a true clone.  Also for the first cloned wildcat, Ditteaux, and the first green fluorescent protein (GFP) cats.  We have shown that the site for cat domestication is very likely the Near East and that the present day cats of Egypt are likely descendents of the cats of the Pharoahs – the first to study mtDNA in cat mummies.   We have found the mutations for thirteen coat colors and fur traits and nine different disease traits.

TvyamNb-BivtNwpvn7Sct0VFDulyAfA9wBcU0gVHVnqC5ghpwSYOd3VW8zkwp7roelxSsyXe0FUxJR6qIV0Jordan: Recently, I’ve researched some cat breeds and found that some breeders have produced some very bizarre animals. Some might call these feline creations very cute and some might say they are bit bizarre looking. Nonetheless, they all deserve a loving home. What are your thoughts on novel cat breeds, especially at a time when many non-pedigree individuals are in need of rescue?

Dr. Lyons: Yes, all cats deserve an appropriate home.  Many non-pedigreed cats are in need of rescue, but pedigreed cats are more likely to stay in homes and also get very good health care.  They also can provide a predictable behavior that may be more appropriate for a given family.  Pedigreed cats are a very small proportion of the overall cat population, and novel cats are a cottage industry.  The impact of novel breeds is miniscule as compared to promoting local spay/neuter/release programs and for cat owners to be responsible and alter their cats.

(All photos belong to National Geographic)

With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email:
  • P

    There are several pics of different cats in this article. Which one is of the world famous cat geneticist?

  • Anne from

    That was fascinating – thank you! Would love to see more articles about feline genetics on your site.

  • Harvey Harrison

    Lyons may have done some fine work on genetically inherited diseases but she sure did not first show the origin of the domestic was in the Middle East. That was done by Driscoll. She is the last person to claim any knowledge about cats from the Middle East because she consistently ignored samples from cats in that area and assumed that CFA and TICA cat fancy Turkish Angoras and Turkish Vans were the true representatives of cats from that area. Verifiable genuine samples from the Ankara Zoo, Marmaris, and other Turkish sites , as well as Cyprus, were compared to the cat fancy version, found to be vastly different, and therefore not representative of those Turkish breeds. So she considers Turkish cats unrepresentative of Turkish cats. It gets worse. Her 2012 Turkish Cat Genetics Study showed data from several Turkish random bred cats as being closely related to American cat fancy Angoras, but in the Tuft’s/Lyon’s Conference paper she published a phylogenetic tree that showed cat fancy Turkish Angoras and Vans as being descended from a wide variety of American and West European breeds with no Middle East influence. Thus she proclaims that Turkish random-bred cats are a mixture of Western cat fancy breeds including the Maine Coon American Short Hair, Ragdoll, etc. This insanity is the result of the highly unscientific assumption which trashes all consequent conclusions. A Patentscope document issued by UC Davis gives all the SNP and STR values of all the cats used in her studies. Outstanding is the remarkable similarity between Turkish and Cyprus cats and their lack of any relationship to West European and American cats Consequently her claim in the 2012 Study that ” The Turkish Angora breed contains the most representative cats of Turkey” is completely false. Now she claims to have discovered the origin of the domestic cat is in the Middle East. She has not studied cats from the Middle East. She has only studied cat fancy versions supposed to be from the Middle East, and random-bred cats from Istanbul were classified by her as western cat fancy breeds. Who am I? I am the person who supplied many samples from the Middle East including the Ankara Zoo who is rather upset to see these genuine samples ignored in order to pervert the course of science.

  • Juan Sebastián Torres

    Great article, love the cool facts! I’m more a dog person, but I couldn’t resist on reading this article.

  • Maria Longeri – Professor of Animal Genetics – University of Milan – Italy

    Science and knowledge move forward step by step.

    A scientific work can be considered methodologically correct and effective when it reaches the highest level of truth that it can by using at their best the tools available and by proceeding with a rigorous analysis. Any scientific research has to be published in co-authorship by a team of scientists and has to be impartially and unmercifully reviewed in all his parts by anonymous specialists in the field before being published. Completely understanding specific papers often requires life-long studies and some working experience in the field.

    The discrimen between chatting and researching is all that.

    The progressive improvement of technology can lead to looking at problems from a different prospective or a more detailed one, and to eventually obtaining further results. A true scientist such as Dr.Lyons always thinks about her own data in this prospective. The accuracy and scientific rigor of Dr.Lyons’s research are indisputably demonstrated by her many findings on Mendelian simple traits.

    She has actually dedicated a years-long research to such a fluid and elusive matter as the “origin” of feline breeds, a field where finding the hidden prints of the ancestors is strongly compromised by the pressure of human selection. However this research has also a second great output. It is fundamental to the comprehension of feline and domestic cat genomic variability and to the ideation of new tools and research approaches that will lead to step ahead in knowledge about cats in the near future.

    The scientific community and the “cat people” have to sincerely thank Dr.Lyons for her outstanding priceless work and should be grateful for her opening the doors of the understanding of the “cat world”.

  • Harvey Harrison

    @Maria Longeri. I am sorry but there is nothing in your reply that refers to the specifics of the content of my critique or the work of L Lyons on Turkish cats. Your reply therefore falls into the category of “chat”.
    “Quote ” A scientific work can be considered methodologically correct and effective when it reaches the highest level of truth”.
    You fail on that point.
    Her work on Turkish cats whether pedigree or random-bred does not reach the highest level of truth. In fact it is totally erroneous.
    This where the errors begin..
    “Step 2 – Breed Ancestry is a secondary matching process that compares your cat to the well-defined, registered cat breed populations of the USA.”
    As I have already explained, her studies start off with this ASSUMPTION that the American cat fancy breeds are the true representatives of Turkish cats.
    Subsequent analysis and comparison of cats from different regions prove that to be completely false. However much effort is made to make the data conform to the assumption with hilarious results. It was found that the cat fancy Turkish Angora is closely related to the cat fancy Egyptian Mau and Tunisian random-bred cats. Tunisia may be in the Mediterranean but the cats are from France and belong to the West European group. The E Mau is genetically a W European cat. Lumping these cats in the Mediterranean group, as shown in the 2007 Ascent of Cat Breeds phylogenetic tree is calculated to mislead. The tree however does show very clearly there is no relationship between the cat fancy Angora and Turkish random-bred cats, thus disproving the above-mentioned assumption. There is much more evidence of this nature published by L Lyons, who however continues to claim that , “The Turkish Angora breed contains the most representative cats of Turkey”. This profound statement , contradicted by her own phylogentic trees from the first-mentioned Tuft’s Conference, has now been published at another Tuft’s conference and is available on line.
    I have all of her studies. I do know what I am talking about and I do have genuine Turkish Angoras which DO NOT genetically or morphologically match the American cat fancy specimens.

  • Harvey Harrison

    Attention Professor Maria Longori. Your qualifications as Professor of Animal genetics ideally suits you to make an important contribution to unraveling the mysteries of the Turkish Cats Genetics Study by Leslie Lyons dated January 2, 2012. The following conundrum ids just one of many. The samples submitted from Istanbul by Professor Haydar Ozpinar and several from other parts of Turkey such as Ankara are shown in the above-mentioned study as being closely related to the cat fancy pedigree Turkish Angora. These CFA and TICA registered Angoras are identified in her several phylogenetic trees as being very closely related to western random-bred cats. This logically means that the cats of Istanbul and other parts of Turkey are also western group cats. Many other examples of pedigree Turkish Angoras and vans many from Marmaris, Cyprus and other parts of Turkey including the Ankara Zoo are identified as belonging to the Cyprus group . None of those documented samples from Turkey or Cyprus are identified as Turkish or East Mediterranean/Anatolian. This clearly infers that there is no such thing as the native Turkish cat since all are either imported from the West or from Cyprus according to her findings and statements. This implies that there can be no such breed as the Turkish Angora or Turkish Van. However there is another set of contradicting and conflicting data on the same cats in her own Patentscope paper. In this paper the referred -to samples from Turkey and Cyprus ar all allocated to population 1, and western group cats to the distinct population 4. This means that the data in her 2012 study is either wrong, mangled, or altered. which establishes an unwarranted relationship between pedigree breeds and Turkish native cats. The sample numbers cross relate but not the the DNA data. Just one example. In the Patentscope paper sample No 6735 is shown as 97.4% population 1 (Turkey/ Anatolia), but in the 2012 study the same sample is shown as 93.6% Turkish Angora and 2.78% Cyprus group but she has identified the pedigree Turkish Angora as western and genuine samples from Ankara and elsewhere as Cyprus group. The Patentscope data also discredits her statements .- Overall Summary. 4) The cats of Cyprus are a distinct population within the Mediterranean. 5) Some limited migration of cats occurs between Cyprus and Turkey. The DNA data proves that Cyprus cats are genetically identical to Turkish cats, and the statement claiming limited migration of cats between Cyprus and Turkey is irrational. A new cat breed called the Cyprus Apohrodite Giant has been invented by the WCF based solely on this erroneous declaration. I had hoped that you with your considerable resources would have tackled the job of countering this minefield of misinformation, but so far I have seen no sign of that. I feel sorry for the people who paid good money for all this nonsense. Harvey Harrison, Angorarama Cattery, Mersin 10, Turkey.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media