I’m sure by now, many of you have seen the video about cloning and genetic engineering.
Published by the World Economic Forum in a short 60 second video, it proclaimed that a company was only two years from producing the first genetically engineered super horse. That through the use of cloning and altering the genome of our great runners and jumpers, we could produce horses that jump higher, run faster, turn tighter, and altogether are BETTER than the horses we have in existence.
Soon after this was posted, it was tagged along with the idea that these horses would be allowed in the *gasp* Olympics, and equestrian fans everywhere ran to their keyboards to say just how unfair this would be. How grotesque it would be. How we were all about to play God.
And I had to do everything in my power not to throw a little bit of science smackdown on the outpouring of rage.
I told myself that it wasn’t worth it, that the general public wouldn’t understand just how radicalized this video had made one companies mission statement.
But then I realized that this is exactly what this blog SHOULD be. Science. Written in a way for the mass public to understand it. So here I go. I shall try to talk you all off of your ledges, and hopefully educate some in between the lines.
Cloning: Single Cell Nuclear Transfer
Cloning is a quite simple idea, wrapped in some crazy complex science in order to get it to work. But in a nutshell, it begins with a horse that you want to clone. Now, as the procedure costs upwards of $100,000, it would be believed that only a horse of tremendous value would be considered. This horse, this valuable creature, is considered the “Somatic Donor” and donates their DNA through a variety of cell types – but usually hair.
Now, in addition to this horse, another cell from another horse is retrieved – specifically the oocyte, or egg. This horses DNA should not matter, as the nucleus – or the organelle filled with the genetic material, will be removed before it is ever utilized.
And in its place, the nucleus of the valuable animal will be implanted. This allows for the genetic material of one animal to be within the cellular structure of another. And this can then grow within the laboratory in a nice little petri dish full of fun nutrients at a specific temperature. And if the embryo survives, this is about where the cloning aspect of the procedure ends, and the embryo transfer aspect begins.
Because, just like in a standard embryo transfer procedure, this embryo is then implanted into a recipient mare. A mare that is chosen for her reproductive soundness, her physical soundness, her temperament, and her mothering ability. This is usually done at roughly day 7 after the clone is made, and when the recipient mare is heavily in diestrus and producing that magical progesterone which will both nurture the embryo while also telling the mare that she is pregnant!
And then, if all goes perfectly, in roughly 340 days, we have a beautiful baby pony.
Now, none of this is new. There are many famous clones walking amongst us – and there are quite a few commercial companies which will do this for you. The famous racier Storm Cat has a handful of clones existing in Argentina as polo sires, William Fox Pitts event mount Tamarillo has been recreated, and the first clone of jumper Gem Twist was born 10 years ago in 2008.
So where is the outrage stemming from?
It’s not the cloning. Its the genetic engineering.
CRISPR/Cas9: Genetic Engineering
For the past couple of years, researchers have been using a technique called CRISPR/Cas9 to edit the genes of research animals with the hopes of potentially being able to edit them in humans. Is this playing with God? Maybe. But when your child has a genetic mutation that can lead to life ending diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis, and you can change this by altering one gene within their genome, it sounds pretty amazing.
And this is where the science gets tough, and I won’t delve too deep.
In a nutshell, the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system allows us to cut, implant, or replace genetic material that we want to change. It has been successAnd in a life/death situation, this is fascinating. In a run fast/jump higher situation, it sounds simply ridiculous.
But that is where we all need to pause, and think about what exactly we intend to engineer.
There is only one gene that has been found to correlate with “running faster” and it is myostatin. Only the myostatin gene doesn’t predict if your horse will win races, it simply predicts which distance your horse will be best suited for, and this was well studied and found by Dr. Emmeline Hill in Ireland.
There are 4 types of molecules which make up our double stranded DNA: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine, or A, C, G, and T. And these are what come together to create our genes.
The Genes to Engineer:
And in the gene for myostatin — an important aspect of muscle development — researchers found that C/C horses are suited to fast, short-distance races; C/T horses compete favorably in middle-distance races; and T/T horses have greater stamina and may be best suited to longer distances. Their take away? C/C and C/T horses will do better in the 2 year-old sales, while T/T horses *might* just be more well suited to marathon distance and possibly steeplechase.
Does this mean that we *could* genetically engineer a racehorse specifically to suit our distance preference? Sure. Except the Jockey Club won’t allow it.
And this is one of the main reasons why. While so many people lament the fact that the Jockey Club only allows the use of natural live cover breeding with no assisted reproductive techniques, at the root of it was because of something like this. In the thoroughbred industry, we do not want anyone to play God. And while everyone misunderstands the demand that we do not perform artificial insemination, or embryo transfer, or cloning, at the base of it is to avoid something like this.
But in the sport horse disciplines, we can.
Only in the sport horse disciplines, this information is fairly useless, at least now. The eventer, jumper, reiner, or dressage horse doesn’t just run. They also jump, turn, spin, and passage. And there is no gene that has been found to specifically correlate to success in any of these things in the way that myostatin was found to correlate with distance of race for the thoroughbred.
Therefore, there’s simply nothing to mutate, or engineer….now.
It is not the Olympic Committee, or FEI’s, job to discern whether a cloned horse can or cannot compete, as it is the breed industries and organizations which govern the actual registration of the animal, and just how that animal was created.
Because one could already say that the warmbloods which are bred with embryo transfer are also at an advantage over anyone bringing an OTTB to an FEI event.
With embryo transfer, we can also discern the sex of the embryo, and are perilously close to testing embryos for genetic disorders and allowing the owner to choose which embryo they would like the veterinarian to implant into the recipient. And this is playing God nearly as much as genetic engineering with CRISPR/Cas9.
There is only one breed organization which does not allow assisted reproductive techniques, and as stated previously, that is the thoroughbred.
But even the thoroughbred uses therapeutics and drug interference to get mares which would otherwise be considered infertile, pregnant. Even the thoroughbred manipulates the stallions via hormonal therapy to get a stallion with low sperm count to cover the desired amount of mares. We’ve all given ovulation-inducing drugs like hCG or deslorelin. We’ve all administered Regumate to a mare with an incompetent cervix. We’ve all used immunomodulators on a horse that pools fluid.
In a way, we are all playing God.
We are a far, far, way away from finding specific genes which actually impact the success of a show horse. So much of it is because its not just one gene, so much of it is because of the nature surrounding a horse.
And you can take a genetically superb horse and it can get into a trailer accident and never again like confined spaces. You can clone Gem Twist and miss a distance to a jump at the age of 4 and train him to not enjoy the process. You can clone Tamarillo and have him find a divot in the water complex and choose to never go back in one.
Now what can/should genetic engineering be used for? Well, any genetic disease which has been found disastrous for the breed. HYPP in quarter horses, Lavender Foal Syndrome in Arabians, and maybe even diseases that have always had assumed genetic components without any scientific basis: like cryptorchidism, or Wobblers Syndrome. It would be possible to take a horse that you intend to use as a breeding stallion, but will not be allowed into the breed book due to a genetic issue, and clone him to produce a stallion who will.
Those reasons are legit, and will be interesting to study.
Will we one day find the genes which make a horse great performers? I don’t know, but honestly I don’t think so. So many horses have overcome bad genetics, while others have never risen to the fame of their siblings. This hasn’t been overcome by breeding with statistics or science. This won’t be overcome by cloning. This won’t be overcome by genetic engineering.
Because at the end of the day, the most important aspect of the horse isn’t the genes for its speed, or its jump. It’s the genes that transcribe to the heart.
And that, my friends, can never be engineered.