Saturday 21 July 2018

Scientists crack gene code to make horses that run faster and jump higher - and they could compete soon in the Olympics

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)

Sarah Knapton

Genetically engineered horses designed to be faster, stronger and better jumpers will be born in 2019 after a breakthrough by the same laboratory which clones polo ponies.

Scientists in Argentina successfully used a powerful DNA editing technique called Crispr to rewrite the genomes of cloned horses.

Healthy embryos were produced following the procedure, which the researchers plan to implant into a surrogate mother within two years.

The team focussed on boosting the myostatin gene sequence which is crucial to muscle development, endurance and speed.

Theoretically, animals designed in such a way should be able to run faster, for longer, and jump higher more easily.

Traditionally the same traits would be achieved by breeding animals which already exhibited desirable features. But it can take many generations to develop a beneficial trait.

Daniel Sammartino, founder of cloning specialists Kheiron Biotech, which is based in Buenos Aires, said: “This technology brings additional progress in horse breeding. It could be possible to achieve better horses in less time,

“Our next big challenge is not only to export our technology, but fundamentally develop these scientific advances in other animals for multiple purposes.”

The first horse was cloned in 2003 by US cloning company ViaGen and cloned polo ponies are now widespread. Last year, Adolfo Cambiaso rode six horses cloned from the same mare, to help his team win the Argentinian open.

Though cloning itself cannot improve a line, it does offer some advantages to the original donor horse, as breeders can make sure the environment and training is a perfect fit, meaning that it is likely the ‘daughter’ clone will be better than the original.

In 2013, the The International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) lifted the ban on cloned horses competing internationally following a review which found they were unlikely to have any advantage over horses bred traditionally. But none have so far competed at the Olympic games.

The FEI said there were no rules yet in place to stop genetically engineered horses competing.

FEI spokeswoman Shannon Gibbons said: “The performance of a cloned horse is unlikely to match that of the original horse for a number of reasons, including the maternal uterine environment, nutrition, training and the understanding that clones are not exactly the same as the original horse.

“Additionally, as progeny of cloned horses will be produced by conventional reproductive methods, such as natural covering or artificial insemination, maintaining fair play is protected.

“The FEI will therefore not forbid participation of clones or their progenies in FEI competitions. However, we will continue to monitor further scientific research.”

British equestrian bodies also said there was nothing preventing genetically edited animals from competing.

Emily Dunn, a spokeswoman for British Eventing said: “There are not currently any rules around cloned or genetically engineered animals in eventing.”

The genetic editing technique Crispr - which stands for Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeat - is a naturally-occurring defence mechanism used by bacteria.

Bacteria carry in their DNA strands of genetic code belonging to viruses so that they recognised them when they come near and send out an enzyme which snips a way at the code, destroying the invader.

Scientists have harnessed this mechanism to use as a kind of ‘molecular scissors’ which snips away a specific area of DNA code and replaces it with a different version which gives new instructions to the body, effectively reprogramming the animal.

Scientists plan to continue editing other genes to improve other characteristics. Edits such as these could also be used to cure defective sequences by eliminating genetic pathologies.

The results will be published early next year in the journal Cloning and Stem Cells.

Irish Independent

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