D-n-neigh lab a winning bet
D-n-neigh lab a winning bet
A speed gene in horses is enabling thoroughbred owners to sort would-be sprinters from plodders from just a teaspoonful of the galloper's blood.
Scientists at University College in Dublin, Ireland, matched the genetic code of 179 race winners with performance on the track to identify variants of the muscle mass-regulating myostatin gene that predict a horse's optimum racing distance.
The research is the first known characterization of a gene contributing to a specific athletic trait in thoroughbreds, the authors said in the study, published Wednesday in the Public Library of Science Journal. Commercialization of the test may alter the course of a multibillion-dollar industry whose breeding practices have remained little changed for centuries, the researchers said.
"Breeders currently rely on combining successful bloodlines together, hoping that the resulting foal will contain that winning combination of genes," said Emmeline Hill, 36, a geneticist at the university and the study's lead author. "Whether those winning genes have or have not been inherited could only be surmised by observing the racing and breeding success of a horse over an extended period of years."
For $1,400, owners may submit a 5-milliliter sample of their horse's blood to Hill's Equinome lab to test whether the animal has inherited a specific myostatin mutation conferring speed for short-distance races, staying power for middle distances or stamina for longer events over 1.3 miles, she said.
Equinome was co-founded last year by Hill and Jim Bolger, an Irish racehorse trainer and breeder, to commercialize the gene test and pursue research on horse genetics. The company plans to begin offering the test at the end of January.
The test results, returned in about three weeks, may also help breeders make better-informed decisions on which mares to mate with which stallions, and tell whether a foal has a genetic predilection for early maturity, advantageous for racing as a 2-year-old.
"It takes out a lot of the guesswork and minimizes the risk of any future investment you may have for that horse," Hill said, adding that training and racing strategies also influence success on the track. "This is a test for what your horse will be good at, not how good he will be."
Hill's research follows the completion three years ago of the Horse Genome Project in which more than 100 scientists in 20 countries collaborated to define the DNA sequence of the domestic horse. The knowledge is enabling scientists to better understand the genetic aspects of equine physiology and disease.
In humans, more than 200 genes have been associated with athletic performance traits, Hill said. Scientists expected many genes would contribute to overall performance in horses, so it was unusual that a single gene, myostatin, was so influential, she said.
Racehorse breeders will probably want to see more evidence before embracing the approach, said billionaire retailer Gerry Harvey, who runs more than 300 thoroughbred brood mares in Australia.
"I would be interested, but skeptical because of all the different theories that have come up over the years," Harvey said. "They have got to do the practical side, and it will be many years before they have an answer."
By JASON GALE
New York Post 1/23/10
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