Cloning Horses — As a person who knows genetics – I am shaking my head

By: Dr. Mike Guerini (www.dunmovinranch.com)

On July 30, 2013, the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) put out a press release about a court ruling on the issue of registering horses who result from the process of cloning and the progeny that comes from these clones.  I hold a PhD in Veterinary Molecular Biology and know my way around a genome and I am also a lifetime member of the AQHA so I thought I  would share some thoughts.

First off — here is the first paragraph from the AQHA press release — A 10-person jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Amarillo Division, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Abraham & Veneklasen Joint Venture et al v. American Quarter Horse Association lawsuit. The plaintiffs sued AQHA alleging that AQHA Rule REG106.1, which prohibits the registration of cloned horses and their offspring in AQHA’s breed registry, violates federal and state anti-trust laws. The jury awarded no damages. The trial began July 17.

Now let us get into the meat and potatoes of this issue.  From a genetics standpoint we call that A, G, C, T…or in other words, the basic building blocks of life — DNA (nucleotides Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine, and Thymine).  I have used a variety of methods to cut, join, synthesize, and chew up DNA in my over 15 years of laboratory work.

Sure — with cloning technology we can create an animal that has the exact same genetic make-up as one that was used as the “original.”  Is it easy to do, well not exactly easy but money solves that problem so it can be done.

But there are so many things that happen beyond the sequence of A, G, C, and T.  The A, G, C, and T units are ordered in such a way as to make genes.  These genes are expressed as RNA that is then translated into proteins.  Proteins are found in all cells and are the basic components of cartilage, hair, skin, etc., and often function as enzymes, hormones, or antibodies.  So DNA makes RNA and RNA gives rise to Proteins and it is the proteins that bring us all together. (Rather simply put but accurate)

But here is the important thing to remember about cloned horses. The expression of genes in an organism can be influenced by the environment (air quality, feed quality and  type of feed, nutrient packages, training, stimuli, amount of light, quality of water, and illnesses that come over time).  So a clone might have the same genetic make-up but it will not have the same exact environmental influences that the “original” experienced.  Without those same influences — the clone cannot be the same.  The environmental stimuli can alter the gene expression patterns and when gene expression patterns are altered (some are turned on and others are turned off) there will be differences.

Think back 20 years ago — Feed and supplement programs for horses were very different and because of that we cannot expect the horses of today (cloned or not) to have the same physical make-up.  So at the cellular and organismal level — it is most probable that a clone will not have the same protein expression pattern and without that same expression pattern — the organism, in this case a horse, will grow differently.

But let us get out of the Genetics weeds for a moment.  If the original horse (the one that was cloned) had a fly land on his nose 3 hours and 42 minutes after he was born and that peaked his curiosity and gave him a bit of a spook, which then led him to jump around and fall on his rear, that in turn led to him “learning” that he could move quickly and with agility at that early age but had to figure out balance from that moment forward….and a clone did not have that experience until 12 hours and 38 minutes of life — those differences in learning and experience might just make for an extremely different horse….that has the same DNA.

We are the sum of our experiences.  Our horses are the sum of the life experiences they receive.

So if people want to throw gobs of money around and create clones and try to make a duplicate of a great horse using dollars — rather than training and work and a bit of “good luck” along the way — let them.  They are just fooling themselves by thinking that the genome is the complete answer.  There is so much beyond those four nucleotides — sure wish it was that simple, but it is not.

The greater problem with this process is what do we do with all the clones that do not make muster?  What will come of all those horses that came about as a result of a cloning event and the “clone” just did not turn out to be great enough?  Sure, with progeny of clones people could breed horses (mare’s to different stallions, etc) in ways they did not think about or could not have done previously.  So this might just be a slippery slope to even more horses who do not have a place in life because they are not considered good enough or as good as the “original.”

I may not agree with everything that AQHA does…but in this case, whether they mean to or not, I do think they are acting to PROTECT the horse.  By trying to fight this battle to keep clone’s and their progeny from being registered (let us hope they can find another way to fight after this ruling), AQHA might just be trying to save us from creating “throw away horses.”  A clone that is not as good as the original might be thrown out as trash … sad but true.

These are my thoughts about this topic and I will not be looking to clone my own horses.  I will treasure each one as unique and those that come later in my life will be different — and hopefully better because of what I do as a horseman to make them better … not because of what I can do in a laboratory to make them the same as a great one in the past.

Dr. Mike Guerini is a clinician, author of multiple Horsemanship books, co-inventor of the Equine Hydro-T and specializes in western performance based instruction and you can learn more about Dr. Mike and his 6 C’s of Horsemanship at http://www.dunmovinranch.com. Dun Movin Ranch is also home to the Equine Hydro-T (www.hydrot.com).

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