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Celeb cat Lil Bub finds mutation clues in Berlin gene lab

Lil Bub's pokey tongue is the result of a rare genetic condition. cat-wow
© iamlilbub - Instagram

A cat with extra toes, no teeth, a sticky-outty tongue, and three million Facebook fans has discovered secrets about her unique configuration following the sequencing of her genome. 

By G. John Cole

Published on the 06/03/2019, 12:00, Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:51

Human folk like to drop Lil Bub’s name in conversation alongside the names of figures such as Ernest Hemingway and Sonic The Hedgehog. Not because the three of them have been spotted drinking cocktails together in Key West, but due to the genetic anomaly that has furnished the celebrity cat with her unique looks.

Sequencing the LilBubome

When Lil Bub was discovered among a litter of feral kittens in Indiana in July 2011, it didn’t take long for cat-lovers to notice her unusual traits. She has dwarfism, so her limbs have remained small compared to the rest of her body; that said, the rest of her body has remained pretty small, too, since she is described as a “perma-kitten.” 

Her lower jaw is shorter than her upper jaw, which – because she has no teeth – causes her tongue to loll permanently outside of her mouth. She has an extra toe on each paw, just like Ernest Hemingway’s cats. And her bulging eyes are a shocking shade of green.

Bub, who works in merchandising, endorsing foods and medicines that she sells via her website, is also the only cat ever to be diagnosed with the bone condition osteopetrosis. She manages the condition with Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy.

But now, following an $8,000 (£6,000) crowdfunding campaign termed “The LilBubome,” scientists have managed to have a closer look at the mystery moggy – and were surprised with what they found.

Bub boost for Berlin boffins

Boffins from the Max-Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, and the University of Pennsylvania, sequenced Lil Bub’s genome (her unique genetic pawprint).

While they were not stunned to find she has the common ‘Sonic Hedgehog gene’ – the same condition as Hemingway’s cats – they were more surprised to find she also has a variation of the TNFRSF11A gene that caused her osteopetrosis.

“At first, you’re thinking Lil Bub’s polydactyly and her limb shortness are all part of the same syndrome,” the study’s co-author Leslie Lyons told Science Magazine. “Then you start to tease it apart and you realize, no, she has Sonic hedgehog mutations that have nothing to do with the [osteopetrosis] issue that’s going on.

“It was like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of weird, the cat has two different rare mutations.’”

While the research sheds new light on the famous moggo’s celebrated look, the researchers hope that their discoveries will be put to better use in the development of treatment for humans or mice with bone conditions.

“Humans have this disease, too,” continues Lyons, “and knowing more about how this mutation functions might help lead to a tailored therapy with precision medicine that affects the gene.”


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