Clone wars controversy hits equestrianism

This feature for the science section of the Daily Telegraph brings together two of my favourite subjects… horses and technology.

I interviewed the lovely Julia Harrison Lee, a heiress who has become the first Briton to clone a horse. The lucky animal, Romulus 16, was formerly a star of the GB national squad with the rider Damian Charles, but in recent years he has been in retirement at Harrison Lee’s US farm.

If you have £150,000 burning a hole in your pocket and fancy cloning your horse, you might want to have a look at the Cryozootech website, where they provide details of all their previous successes.

They can also freeze genetic samples and keep them in a library of DNA, as a just in case.

Full text is on the Telegraph website here, or after the fold.

Will the first cloned British showjumper live up to his genes?

Exact copies are making headway in the sport but there is also stiff resistance, reports Cal Flyn.

The Daily Telegraph, 26 Jun 2012
British horse breeder Julia Harrison Lee may own dozens of horses, but her two favourites have a lot in common. Each of the handsome bays is solidly built, with a reddish-brown coat and white marks on its face.

They are so similar they could be the same horse; in fact, even a DNA test would not be able to tell them apart

Although one is 24 years old, and the other aged only 18 months, they match on a very basic level – the younger is an exact genetic copy of the other.

Harrison Lee took the decision to clone her distinguished veteran show jumper Romulus 16 when he retired – becoming the first British breeder to enter this controversial territory.

About the older animal, she says: “He is such wonderful horse. I worship him. He has scope, power, intelligence, and he’s such a careful jumper.

“By the time he was eight, he was jumping and winning at Grand Prix level – where fences can be five feet tall and six feet wide. Horses with that sort of capability are very rare.”

Romulus 16 – stable name Gerry – competed for the GB squad with the rider Damian Charles for six years, and was shortlisted for the Sydney Olympics.

With sterling bloodlines and a world-class track record, Gerry should be a very valuable breeding horse. But unfortunately, like many competition horses, he was castrated when young to calm his temperament.

This is a big problem in the equine world, where many of the best performing horses are geldings.

Breeders must often turn to the less talented half-brothers or sisters of the top horses as a proxy for breeding. But by creating an exact replica, Julia has found the best proxy of all.

The clone, dubbed ‘Mini-Gerry’, is not guaranteed to be a champion jumper himself; even horses with exemplary breeding need top-quality training (and luck) to find success.

However Mini-Gerry can relax in the knowledge that the older horse has already proven that their shared genes hold enormous potential.

If the equestrian world will accept clones into the fold, then Harrison Lee has made a savvy investment: a top showjumping stallion can mate with more than 100 mares a year, earning his owners around £1000 a time. It cost her around €175,000 in total (£142,000) to reproduce Gerry.

With no one licensed to create clones commercially in the UK, she turned to Eric Palmer, of Cryozootech laboratories in Paris.

Palmer says: “There are two steps. Firstly we gain genetic material by taking a small biopsy of skin from the original horse. This works until a few hours after death.

“We then make a cell culture before freezing it in liquid nitrogen at -196C. At this stage, some people simply choose to store the DNA as a ‘just in case’. You can freeze it for as long as you want – our contracts are renewed every 10 years.

“In the next step, when we actually come to create a clone, we take an egg – this can come from any mare – remove the genes inside and replace them with the genes of the animal you want to clone. We then fuse the cell, using electrical and chemical signals to prompt growth. The egg can then be transferred into the uterus of a surrogate mare.”

“It’s a problematic process still, and sometimes we will need several tries. In the case of Romulus 16, we were lucky on the second attempt.”

Mini-Gerry was born to an unrelated mare in the US, where Harrison Lee owns a successful showjumping yard.

“If I’m honest, I was dreading going to see Mini Gerry when he was born,” she admits. “I was worried he’d be weedy and weak, but when I got to the farm I found this little bouncy fellow, leaping and bucking and side kicking his mother. You wouldn’t have any idea that he is a clone.”

Her decision to push ahead with the technique was something of a calculated risk.

It was not until earlier this month [June] that the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), showjumping’s governing body, gave the go ahead for clones and their progeny to compete at a professional level.

A decision was forced by growing numbers of sports horse clones.

Italian scientists cloned a horse for the first time in 2003, a mare named Prometea, and there are now more than 100 worldwide. The first foals from cloned showjumpers ET and Gem Twist were born earlier this year.

In the polo world clones are already permitted, and change hands for huge amounts of money.

A clone of Cuartetera, a top polo mare, fetched $800,000 (£490,000) at a Buenos Aires auction in 2010.

However, many of the biggest names in showjumping remain resistant. Only two major breeding registers, Studbook Zangersheide and the Anglo European Studbook, will accept clones onto their books.

Tom Reed, breeding director of the Warmblood Studbook of Ireland, said: “We will never accept clones and their descendants, irrespective of what the FEI and other stud books do. We should be breeding horses and not manufacturing them in laboratories.

“Do we really want to see a World Championship where the entrants are half a dozen clones of an Olympic gold-medallist and a couple of clones of a previous world champion?”

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