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A genetic mutation may cause rabbits to do handstands instead of hop

Some rabbits raise their back legs and step on their front paws to move quickly.

According to a new study, a defective gene may cause some bunnies’ hops to become handstands.
Sauteur d’Alfort, a domesticated rabbit breed, sends its back legs sky high and walks on its front paws to move quickly. Researchers say in PLOS Genetics on March 25 that the strange gait may be the product of a gene linked to limb movement.
Sauteur d’Alfort rabbits aren’t the only ones that develop an unusual scamper if this gene, known as RORB, is mutated.

According to Stephanie Koch, a neuroscientist at University College London who was not involved with the rabbit research, mice with a mutation to the gene often do handstands when they start running. And while walking, the mice raise their back legs to almost duck-like waddle forward.

“I spent four years looking at these mice doing little handstands, and now I get to see a rabbit do the same handstand,” says Koch, who led a 2017 study published in Neuron that explored the mechanism behind the “duck gait” in mice. “It’s amazing.”

Researchers will be able to learn more about how the spinal cord functions if they can figure out why the rabbits move in such an unusual way. According to Leif Andersson, a molecular geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden, the research “contributes to our fundamental knowledge about a very significant role in humans and all animals — how we are able to travel.”
Andersson and colleagues bred hop-less sauteur d’Alfort male rabbits with hop-able New Zealand white female rabbits in the rabbit study. The researchers then searched for mutations in the offspring who couldn’t hop’s genetic blueprints, which didn’t occur in the offspring who could.

Rabbits with the faulty gene will move normally when traveling slowly from position to place, alternating their front and hind legs. Rabbits, on the other hand, hop to move quickly or cover long distances. According to study coauthor Miguel Carneiro, a molecular geneticist at Universidade do Porto in Vairo, Portugal, hopping involves synchronized hind legs to leap at the same time.
Some hop-less bunnies could do a more dramatic handstand than others if they don’t have the coordination. Carneiro claims that all rabbits with the RORB mutation use their front paws to travel rapidly.

It’s an interesting observation, although the study doesn’t reveal much about how the lack of the RORB protein in interneurons spurs the rabbits’ handstands, Koch says. “All they’re looking for is that mutation in one gene and how that gene is affecting the spinal cord, but it could be affecting everything in the rabbit. We have no idea.”  

Understanding how the genetic mutation affects the body in general may be crucial to comprehending how all animals travel. Even people can’t sprint if our four limbs aren’t moving in unison. “If you look at the 100-meter sprint — Usain Bolt or someone like that — there’s super coordination between limbs,” Andersson says. “If you lack the coordination between arms and legs… you could never compete for a gold medal.”

These handstand rabbits, on the other hand, will not be able to get any gold. They can, however, aid researchers in developing ways to repair the body when defects in RORB cause disease, according to Koch.

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