Piebald patches seen in black and white cats, and some horses, are formed in the womb, scientists have discovered.

Piebald patches are caused by pigment cells moving and multiplying during early development in the womb, researchers found.
Piebald patches are caused by pigment cells randomly moving and multiplying during early development in the womb, researchers found.

Researchers at the University of Bath and University of Edinburgh conducted the study and said the findings could help them better understand conditions linked to early cell positioning.

The discovery could also shed light on medical conditions that occur early in development, such as holes in the heart, which are caused by cells not moving to the right place as an embryo develops.

Random multiplication

Researchers set out to learn how pigment cells behave in mice and found the cells move and multiply randomly during early development, rather than following instructions. These findings contradict the existing theory of piebald patterns forming on animals’ coats because pigment cells move too slowly to reach all parts of the embryo before it is fully formed.

It was also revealed there is no complicated cell-to-cell communication to send the cells in a particular direction.

The same mathematical model could now be used to follow other types of cell during early development.

‘Not what was expected’

Richard Mort, research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s human genetics unit, said: “We already know cells move through the developing skin to create pigment.

“We have discovered they move and multiply at random, which is not what was expected. Using a mathematical model we were then able to show this simple process could explain piebald patterns.”

The research was published in Nature Communications and was funded by Medical Research Council, Medical Research Scotland, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reductions of Animals in Research.

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