Complex interplay between a horse’s DNA and its environment to be studied

Professor Emmeline Hill, left, and Professor Lisa Katz at University College Dublin. Photo: Nick Bradshaw, Fotonic

The dynamic interplay between the DNA of a growing racehorse and its environment will be explored by researchers in Ireland.

The five-year University of College Dublin project will receive more than €880,000 under the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Frontiers for the Future Programme.

The work will be led by Professor Emmeline Hill, of the university’s School of Agriculture and Food Science, and Professor Lisa Katz, from its School of Veterinary Medicine.

The Thoroughbred research will involve the use of sophisticated genomics and computational technologies to evaluate how the early life environment of the foal, weanling, yearling and young racehorse influences the DNA and affects behaviour, disease and racing performance.

The project will build on a 15-year research programme led by Hill and Katz in equine exercise physiology and genomics at the university, which has uncovered many genetic contributions to athletic traits in the horse.

The research team has been a world leader in the development of genetic tests for racehorses.

Hill says the new research will investigate genetic and epigenetic contributions to exercise, disease and behaviour traits in racehorses.

“Epigenetics refers to the modification of DNA that can alter the activity of genes.

“A major component of the project is to understand how the early life environment of the foal influences its genetic potential for success.

“This is the first time that epigenetic changes to the DNA of elite athletes, of any species, will be profiled and followed from the early neonatal period to high-level performance.”

She continues: “The DNA that a foal is born with plays a key role in its future potential, but not a defining role.

“How breeders, trainers, handlers and jockeys shape the DNA of a horse during its early years may have a comparable or perhaps larger contribution to its success.

“In this project, we will use sophisticated genomics technologies to evaluate how the early life environment affects traits that contribute to racecourse success.”

There is likely an intricate interplay in behavioural and exercise adaptation between the inherited DNA and the environment that is mediated by epigenetics, which is an additional layer of regulatory information that modulates the activity of genes.

Epigenetic modifications determine how individuals with the same or different genetics will respond to particular environments. Genetics (DNA) is fixed from birth, but epigenetics is dynamic and responsive to external inputs and influences how genes are expressed. This could be particularly relevant to the Thoroughbred where the management of a horse is considered as important as genetics in success on the racetrack.

Other academic collaborators on the project include Professor David MacHugh, from the university’s School of Agriculture and Food Science; Professor Keith Murphy, with the School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science; and Professor Molly McCue, with the University of Minnesota.

Irish equine science company, Plusvital Ltd, and prominent racehorse trainer and breeder Jim Bolger, through his stud farm in County Wexford, will also contribute to this project.

Hill and Katz extended their thanks for support extended to the project by Bolger and the Frontiers for the Future Programme.

Katz noted that Bolger and his team had contributed to horse research projects for more than 15 years.

“Without the access to horses for our research, this work would not be possible. Our collaboration is unique in the global equine research community, and we are delighted this opportunity has been recognised.”

The funding award will result in the establishment of four new research positions at the university.

In all, University College Dublin has been awarded €10.2 million for a total of 14 projects through Science Foundation Ireland. The successful projects were announced recently by Ireland’s Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris.

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