Test developed for "speed gene" in thoroughbreds

January 22, 2010

Dr Emmeline Hill, co-founder of Equinome

A breakthrough genetic test is now available that can identify the optimum racing distance for individual thoroughbred horses.

The test has been launched by Equinome, a University College Dublin biotechnology company.

The identification of the "speed gene" is the first known characterisation of a gene contributing to a specific athletic trait in thoroughbreds, and has the potential to transform decision-making processes in the global bloodstock industry.

The test will allow racehorse owners and trainers to be able to identify if a horse is ideally suited to racing over short, middle or middle-to-long distances.

With this information, they can optimise their horse-buying and training decisions and better target suitable races for their horses.

Breeders, stallion managers and bloodstock agents will also be able to use the test to make more precise selection and breeding decisions to maximise the genetic potential and commercial value of their horses.

Equinome, based at the Innovation and Technology Transfer Centre at University College Dublin, will formally launch the test during the two-day Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Expo 2010, which starts on January 29.

The development of the test is a result of research led by Dr Emmeline Hill, a horse genomics researcher at the university's School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine.

The research, funded by Science Foundation Ireland, was the first academic programme in the world to apply novel genomics technologies to identify genetic contributions to racing performance in thoroughbreds.

Following the success of the research programme, Dr Hill and Jim Bolger, a well-known Irish racehorse trainer and breeder, co-founded Equinome in 2009 to commercialise the test.

The scientific data supporting gene test has been published in the open-access journal PLos ONE in an article entitled "A sequence polymorphism in MSTN predicts sprinting ability and racing stamina in Thoroughbred horses".

"Breeding techniques for thoroughbred horses have remained relatively unchanged for centuries," says Hill.

"Breeders currently rely on combining successful bloodlines together, hoping that the resulting foal will contain that winning combination of genes.

"Until now, whether those winning genes have or have not been inherited could only be surmised by observing the racing and breeding success of a horse over an extended period of years after its birth."

Hill says the test will now make it possible to definitively know a horse's genetic type within weeks of a sample being taken, thus reducing much of the uncertainty that has been typically involved in selection, training and breeding decisions.

"The introduction of genetic know-how to breeding will dramatically change the face of the bloodstock industry," suggests John O'Connor, managing director of Ballylinch Stud, County Kilkenny.

"We have begun and intend to continue to utilise this highly valuable tool to fine-tune decision making in our operation. This will fundamentally change the way we will have to think about breeding in the future."