Thanks to innovations in science over the past several decades, genomic testing and profiling has become accessible to the masses. Services like 23andMe and Ancestry.com allow customers to learn about their ethnicity, pre-dispositions to disease, biologic tendencies and more, simply by submitting a saliva sample via mail or at a doctor’s office.
Stop and think for a moment how useful, and in many ways life-changing, this has become for humans. We now have the ability, if we so choose, to identify our susceptibility to devastating diseases, allowing us to take a more proactive and informed approach to our health.
Now, imagine what this could mean for horses, specifically Thoroughbreds, of both the on and off-track variety.
With horses, we can take this one step further. Not only could genetic profiling help horse owners know what disease and trait predispositions to plan and manage for in their horses, but such information could play a significant role in breeding decisions all together.
“Federal funding [for genomic research] has played a major role in the advancement of this science, as it is of great benefit to people’s health. The same is true for animals in food production, such as cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals we eat, again because it can be of significant benefit to our health as humans,” said Dr. Paul Szauter, a researcher with a focus on both human and equine genetics. “It looks bad to use federal funding for genomic testing on horses, mainly because there would be no direct benefit to our health. Therefore, funding for such animals falls to the private sector, and as a result, comparatively very little has been done. Compared to the more than 5,000 identified conditions that can be tested for in human genes, there have only been 16 identified in horses.”
That last sentence should end with, “so far,” as Szauter and his team are well on their way to changing that.
Szauter is the chief scientific officer at EquiSeq, a start-up biotechnology firm that analyzes the genetic material of horses to offer valuable genetically-based matings insight and ultimately improve breeding results. He and his team are currently looking for owners of Thoroughbred and Arabian horses to take part in a genetic testing study aimed at identifying genetic markers for a number of conditions, most notably Recurrent Exertional Rhabdomyolysis (RER), or “tying up.”
“Tying up happens most often in Thoroughbreds and Arabians and we are looking at a genetic variant that is associated with the condition,” explained Szauter, who said Thoroughbreds are of particular interest because their breeding records are so carefully documented.
“Owners who agree to take part in the study will receive a kit, which contains a detailed list of questions about the horse’s health, a tube in which to collect a small blood sample and a consent form for the owner to sign. Every DNA sample we get is useful because they either have an absolutely clean bill of health or they are in the five-to-ten percent of horses that have experienced an episode of RER or are pre-disposed to it.”
Every owner that takes part in the study will, within six to eight weeks, receive a link to a genetic profile of their horse and can choose to make the horse’s profile public.
The more horses Szauter and his team add to their study, the more markers they will be able to identify in horses.
“Within a few years we hope to have hundreds, if not thousands, of samples from Thoroughbreds, which will allow us to identify many more markers,” said Szauter, who added that as new markers for traits and health conditions are identified, the online genetic profiles of horses within the study will be updated.
“The amount of information available on each horse’s online genetic profile will grow over time and be updated retroactively. These people are going through the trouble of getting us the DNA and information, so we want to provide them something in return,” said Szauter. read more…