Instagram star Lil BUB’s DNA helps felines around the world

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Most internet celebrities with over two million Instagram followers star in a major movie or TV show. Even if they have fame another way, they almost all walk on two legs. But that isn’t the case for Lil BUB. The beloved feline boasts an impressive 2.1 million Instagram followers and has even starred in a documentary.

An oddball combination of extra toes, a lolling tongue, and a stubby body come together to make Lil BUB one of the most adorable cats on the internet. Through an unlikely series of events, a team of scientists decided the feline’s DNA should be sequenced to determine the genetic cause for the strange phenotype. Five years later, Lil BUB’s genome has been analyzed and is helping improve medical care for cats around the world.

Unlikely Crossing Of Paths

Daniel Ibrahim and his fellow researcher, Dario Lupianez, work at the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology in Germany. While watching a Vice documentary on famous cats, Ibrahim stumbled upon a scene analyzing Lil BUB’s strangely curved leg bones. Instantly, he drew comparisons to a human condition called osteopetrosis that the pair was researching. At that moment, they knew they wanted to sequence the DNA of the cat.

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Ibrahim and Lupianez reached out to Lil BUB’s owner, Mike Bridavsky, who was excited to help out. It took almost five years and the help of 250 curious donors to their crowdfunding campaign, but the team finally sequenced the celebrity cat’s genome.

Since Lib BUB was found orphaned and abandoned, the process of finding genes that cause her disease was challenging. So, the team compared the genome to an unrelated feline, Cinnamon, the first to have its DNA fully analyzed.

Comparing the two revealed six million mutations causing Lil BUB’s unique traits. This includes a gene known as “Sonic Hedgehog,” which gives her an extra toe. Interestingly, this mutation pinpoints BUB’s origin to Key West and a colony of cats. The marker has only been found in descendants of Ernest Hemingway’s six-toed pets.

Improving Feline Healthcare

Ultimately, the project to sequence Lil BUB’s DNA was about more than just curiosity. The researchers hope it will give veterinarians a better understanding of osteopetrosis and other genetic conditions cats can develop.

Compared to dogs and their history of gene sequencing for pedigree purposes, cats are relatively unstudied in the scope of genetics. The celebrity surrounding Lil BUB may be the key to changing this. In fact, Ibrahim and Lupianez believe it may inspire others to get their own pets sequenced.

Though this process is still new and not many cats have been sequenced, it will likely become more important down the road. Meanwhile, each additional sequencing gives veterinarians and researchers better insight into how to treat feline friends afflicted with mutations.

Fortunately for Lil BUB, her case of osteopetrosis was found to be mild. With the help of her extensive sequencing, her owner is able to get better medical care for everyone’s favorite internet cat.

And now, a Lil BUB…