LEXINGTON, Ky. – In October 1995, 70 equine scientists from 20 nations met in Lexington to kick off the Horse Genome Project, the equine cousin of the $2.7 billion Human Genome Project.

Now, after 12 years of work by researchers scattered around the world – all coordinated through the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center – the Horse Genome Project is poised to radically change the horse world.

Experts say the project could lead to better vaccines to prevent infectious diseases in horses, as well as new treatments for equine respiratory and allergic disorders. It is expected to provide breeders with valuable new insights into planning which stallions and mares to mate. It will be easier to identify horses that carry genetic abnormalities or illnesses. New understanding, coupled with controlled breeding, potentially could eliminate many equine genetic diseases. And the project one day could reveal ways of preventing equine illnesses such as laminitis, the disorder that led to the deaths of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro and Triple Crown winner Secretariat, researchers say.

“It’s going to impact all areas of equine veterinary medicine and equine biology,” says Ernest Bailey, a Gluck Center geneticist and veterinary science professor at the University of Kentucky, who has coordinated the Horse Genome Project since its inception. “Five years from now, what we know about the horse and what we are able to do will be profoundly different because of this.”

Doug Antczak, the Dorothy Havemeyer McConville Professor of Equine Medicine at Cornell University, ranks the Horse Genome Project with the domestication of the horse and the development of the stirrup and the horseshoe as major milestones in equine history.

“I think we’re on a roll now, to where we’ll see a new single-gene genetic disease identified in the horse every year, maybe every six months,” Antczak said. “You don’t want to raise people’s hopes too much. But if we could eliminate 10 or 15 of these simple genetic diseases of the horse, using information from gene testing, that in itself would be a really big deal.”

Antczak, Bailey and other members of the Horse Genome Project are scheduled to meet in San Diego next month to discuss practical applications for the new knowledge they’re gathering.

Bailey writes on the Horse Genome Project Web site that some traditionalists might fear that genetics will destroy the “mystery and magic” of breeding. But he insists that genetics will only help breeders, veterinarians and horse owners.

He concedes, however, that the growing body of equine genetic knowledge potentially could open the way for someone to, say, clone another Secretariat. But in reality, that probably would be a waste of time, Bailey contends. In all likelihood, no clone would ever run the way the original Secretariat did.

“I guess the potential is there, but from a biological standpoint, I don’t know why anyone would try it,” Bailey said. “Genes are only part of an individual’s performance. We wouldn’t expect clones of Secretariat to approach his talent.”

Genetics emerged in the 1990s as the new frontier of human medicine, offering hopes of preventing or curing many illnesses that defied treatment. The first big step was the Human Genome Project, launched by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health in 1990 and completed in 2003 at a cost of almost $3 billion. It laid out for the first time the sequence of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up the human genome, the blueprint for making a human being. It also identified the roughly 20,000 human genes that contain the blueprint. The findings’ effects on human medicine are just beginning to be felt.

Gene analysis techniques and other scientific tools developed for the Human Genome Project opened the way for similar research into horse genetics. But the Horse Genome Project began in decidedly more modest circumstances.

When the Horse Genome Project began, no pot of federal money was available for equine research and there was no government agency to oversee the work, Bailey said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Dorothy Russell Havemeyer Foundation, a private entity devoted to equine health, each donated about $50,000 to help. But the University of Kentucky and the various other participating universities and centers had to cobble together money from anywhere they could find it.

Ultimately, 200 researchers across the United States, England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and 16 other nations would work on the equine project. But since money was limited, they initially set a relatively modest goal of simply mapping some equine genes – that is, pinpointing genes on the 32 pairs of chromosomes found in the nucleus of horse cells, rather than attempting to completely decode the horse genome.

“We needed an equine genetic map, but none of us individually had the resources to do it,” Bailey said. “We each had small laboratories and small funding bases. So, the only way to do it was to collaborate and share resources.”

Progress was slow at first. But the research got a major boost in 2006, when the National Human Genome Research Institute, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, decided to decode the horse genome as a part of its continuing research into human genetics. (Many horse and human genes are similar.)

Commissioned by the human genome institute, MIT’s Broad Institute completed the first draft of the equine genome last winter using DNA from a thoroughbred mare named Twilight owned by Cornell University. The second draft is expected within the next month or so.

With that new information, plus data its own researchers have generated since 1995, the Horse Genome Project is on the verge of ushering a new era of equine science.

Teri Lear, a cytogeneticist with the Gluck Institute, says veterinarians will enjoy some of the first benefits, including an increased ability to identify horses that carry genetic disorders, such as mares with chromosomal abnormalities that can cause them to lose their foals in the embryo stage.

“Now, we can identify about 25 percent of these horses using conventional techniques,” Lear said. “But with the horse genome sequence available, we should be able to increase that.”

There is still work to be done. Lear is helping fill in gaps in the equine genome by analyzing newly identified genes and pinpointing their locations on chromosomes.

But Ernest Bailey sees exciting times ahead.

“I’ve got students studying laminitis, respiratory diseases in horses, and infectious diseases,” he said. “This is far beyond anything we contemplated just a few years ago. I thought I’d be retired before any of this ever came along.”

Cornell University’s Doug Antczak says the Horse Genome Project will lead to better, healthier horses.

“My pie-in-the-sky vision is that everybody who wants to buy a thoroughbred or an Arabian, or whatever, will soon know the possible genetic diseases that could occur in those breeds, be able to have the horses checked for those diseases, and end up with sounder horses,” Antczak said. “This will be the real frontier for research and application of the project.”


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