Dr. Loren Skow, professor of integrative biosciences at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, right, visits with Chris Childers, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab. Skow's research group is studying horses' genetic susceptibility to certain diseases.
Photo: © Edith Chenault, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station
Dr. Loren Skow, professor of integrative biosciences and a member of the faculty of genetics, and his collaborators are on the cusp of developing whole genome high throughput genetic analysis, better known as DNA chips, for horses. His group is particularly interested in the genetic susceptibility of horses to certain diseases.
"When this is concluded, we will have all of the known genes of the horse on a small silicone chip, so we can look at gene expression in different tissues before and after exposure to a pathogen, or identify genetic differences among individuals that help determine susceptibility to disease," he said.
This information will be used in research; however, Skow expects in several years, horse owners will be able to use it in making decisions about their horses' health.
Presently, this type of technology is available for humans as well.
"We can perform a DNA chip analysis and come up with a list of genetic markers that will identify individuals at highest risk for different diseases, whether it be breast cancer or diabetes," he said. "Gene profiles can be used to establish a risk factor, and a person can make lifestyle choices to minimize those risks. We expect to do the same thing for horses."
The development of a DNA chip that provide information about genetic predisposition to disease came about because of earlier research done in Skow's laboratory at Texas A&M.
"In general these are diseases that involve infectious agents, although in some cases they are auto-immune diseases or allergies," he said. "We're interested in the genetic variation that makes an animal more or less susceptible to immunological disorders or infectious diseases."
Skow studies the major histocompatibility complex region—a region of DNA present in all mammals' genomes—associated with more than 100 genetic diseases in humans, including multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
Susceptibility to any viral, bacterial or parasitic disease, allergies or auto-immune disorders may be influenced by the genes in the major histocompatibility complex, he said.
The early work on the horse genome at Texas A&M was supported in part by the Texas Equine Research Account. The account is funded by the education code of the Texas Racing Act in 1995. An 11-member committee advises and assists the director of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in administering the account, said Dr. Mark Hussey, associate director for programmes.
"Twelve years later we have the whole genome sequence of the horse, which is pretty amazing," Skow said. "When we had our first meeting in Kentucky, we were just trying to get organized and map a few genes on a few chromosomes," he said.
"The Texas Equine Research Fund was critical getting the effort at Texas A&M started and provided critical preliminary information that has resulted in more than $3 million in extramural research funds for genomic research in horses."
Members of the committee are from Texas A&M, Tarleton State University, Texas Tech University, research organizations with equine research capabilities, and the major horse breed associations in the state.