How does a tabby cat earn its stripes? With DNA.

Scientists have found the gene that sets the common tabby pattern -- stripes or blotches. It's one of several genes that collaborate to create the design of a cat's coat, and it's the first of the pattern genes to be identified.

Cats with narrow stripes, the "mackerel" pattern, have a working copy of the gene. But if a mutation turns the gene off, the cat ends up with the blotchy "classic" pattern, researchers reported online in the journal Science. It's called "classic" because "cat lovers really like the blotched pattern," said author Greg Barsh, who works at Stanford University and the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala.

The research team, which included scientists from the National Cancer Institute, examined DNA from wild cats in California to identify the gene.

They also found that a mutation in the same gene produces the blotches and stripes of the rare "king" cheetah, rather than the spots most cheetahs have.

Leslie Lyons, a cat geneticist at the University of California, Davis, who didn't participate in the new work, noted that mysteries remain, like just what genetic machinery gives a tabby spots. He said, "The cat has not revealed all its mysteries yet."