Leslie Lyons is no crazy cat lady, although cats are her main focus here at UC Davis. She researches everything feline – from their genes to the little pieces of fur they may leave behind at the scene of a crime.
Recently, Lyons and other UC Davis veterinarians assisted in engineering a glow-in-the-dark cloned cat. If that’s not enough to make you purr, her interview with The California Aggie just might.
What do you teach here?
I teach veterinarian genetics.
What are you researching right now?
I’m looking at inherited traits and diseases of the domestic cat. I also develop genetic resources for rhesus macaques. In the cat research we attempt to find the gene mutations that cause health problems in cats or also cause the traits that make cats distinctive such as coat color changes or body type changes. We try to find out what happened to their genes that caused them to have these traits.
Are you involved in any other work at the Vet School?
I work in the forensic program, with genetics, animal biology and comparative pathology. So we do a lot of cat stuff. Cats-R-Us!
What is cat forensics?
You’ll have fur show up on the scene of the crime and you have to match the fur up to the suspect cat. Usually the fur shows up accidentally – it might leave cat fur on the victim and you can trace that back to the suspect. On CSI, they’ve actually had two cat episodes. One was where an Abyssinian cat was involved and one where a little kid killed a crazy cat lady because she wouldn’t give him one of her cats.
Does this kind of thing actually happen in real life?
I hope a little kid wouldn’t kill a crazy cat lady but there are crazy cat ladies out there. But take a look at your shirt or pants and there’s probably some cat fur on them. Even people who don’t have cats may have cat fur on them because they’ve gone to someone’s house that has cats. There would be no way to go to my house and not get cat fur on you.
Tell us about this glow-in-the-dark cat.
We collaborated with researchers at the Audubon Conservation Research for Endangered Species (ACRS) in New Orleans. They developed a transgenic cat that had the green florescent protein gene, so when you turn on a black light, you can see it glow. Our lab confirmed the cat was cloned. The picture is pretty cool.
Why make a cat that glows?
It paves the way for making transgenic cats. The hope is to make a transgenic cat that might have a corrected gene that causes health problems in cats like blindness, polycystic kidney disease or even later diabetes.
Do you have pets?
I have two cats: Whithers and Figaro.
If you could genetically engineer your cats to have any trait, what would it be?
What’s your favorite part about being a professor?
I like the interaction with the students – seeing the one student that really gets it and might be interested in that kind of research.
Did you always want to be a professor?
When I was younger, I really wanted to be an astronaut, but I didn’t want to go into the air force to learn how to fly. I just didn’t want to go into the armed forces, which was required at the time, but now is not.
What did you do before you came to UC Davis?
I grew up in South Pittsburg, and I went to school at the University of Pittsburg. Then I researched at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). We worked on cats there too.
And where did you go to college?
I went to school at the University of Pittsburg. I studied human genetics.
So how did you get from human genetics to cat genetics?
When I did my post doctoral fellowship at the NCI, I wanted to learn more about comparative genetics, and they just happened to be working with cats. So I didn’t pick cats; they picked me.
Why do you like cats so much now?
I love discovering nearly every day how fascinating they are. They are the ultimate carnivore species and the ultimate survivor. You watch a cat and it’s like artwork. I think they’re really cool. I’m not a crazy cat person but sometimes you have to sit back and think they’re a really intriguing species.
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at email@example.com.