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High-tech horses: 5 insights for the cloning-curious

All good things must come to an end, perhaps with the exception of some really great horses, thanks to advances in cloning technology.

In the horse world, we often hear people refer to their “horse of a lifetime.” As the story goes, every horse person will own one at some point in their life, if they’re lucky enough. Some will be beloved trail companions or elite show champions, while others may have a successful winning edge on the racetrack. But all good things must come to an end, right? Not necessarily.

Cloning, the controversial practice that first came to our attention with the birth of Dolly, a female domestic sheep, in July of 1996, is making it possible to have a genetic replica of your favorite four-legged friend — be it a horse, dog or a whole host of other species. But it’ll cost you, and success isn’t necessarily ensured. Still, if you find yourself curious about the process, here are five things you should know:

  1. Break open your piggy bank: Producing a genetic twin of a horse can cost more than $150,000. That may sound like a lot of money to some, but horses are big business for others, and the opportunity to protect and multiply the genetics of superior animals makes cloning a valuable option for many owners and breeders.

  2. The same, but also different: While the DNA of the cloned horse will exactly match that of the donor, the genetics could be expressed differently than they were in the original animal. We often discuss gene expression as it applies to nutrigenomics research at Alltech. Despite all cells containing a complete genetic code, only a fraction of these genes are expressed — or “switched on” — depending on cell type, availability of nutrients, bioactive compounds and other stimuli.

  3. No guarantees: Just like two famous Michaels — Jordan and Phelps — weren’t born knowing how to dribble a basketball or swim, horses are also products of their environment. Sure, natural talent and ability are helpful, but nutrition, management, handling and training also play a vital role. Just because the original horse was a champion doesn’t mean the cloned horse will be, too.

  4. Just because you can…: Should you? Controversy still surrounds this process. Many don’t feel it’s right to mess with Mother Nature and risk future problems with genetic mutations or bottlenecks that may occur as a result of breeding a specific line. And some breed organizations, including the Jockey Club and the American Quarter Horse Association, oppose the process and will not accept cloned horses or their progeny into their registries.

  5. The bigger picture: Cloning has a wider value in animal reproduction, especially in the preservation of threatened species. Dr. Katrin Hinrichs, professor and Patsy Link Chair of mare reproductive studies at Texas A&M University, offers some insight: “The main justification I see for cloning is to preserve genetics, as in valuable geldings or in the case of rare or endangered species or breeds, so that you can expand the gene pool. You could use cells from animals that died decades ago (if the cells were recovered before or at death and frozen) that are under-represented in the population today.”1

Still not convinced you’d want to take the leap and recreate your furry friend, even if money was no object? Neither am I. Nevertheless, whether you agree with the practice of cloning or find it entirely objectionable, I hope you’ve learned as much as I have from this brief glance.

1 Evans, M. (2016). An inside look at equine cloning. Retrieved from https://www.horsejournals.com/horse-care/alternative-therapies/inside-look-equine-cloning.

 

I would like to keep up with advances in equine technology.