The Observer Tech Monthly June 22, 2014
Excerpt from 'How genetics can create the next superstar racehorse'.
David Derbyshire, Observer Tech Monthly.
In the glorious
sunshine of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stud farm Watership Down, overlooked by
rolling pastures, retired millionaire Dr Philip Brown is inspecting his
Her name is
Darysina and even to an uneducated eye she is something special. Standing
quietly next to a paddock gate she is sleek, muscular and even tempered. She
But what has
Brown so excited isn't simply the four-year-old mare's classy pedigree, her
record on the field or her cost – €800,000 (£640,000) at auction in
December. No. What makes Darysina so precious is the foal she is carrying. In
March, after her DNA was comprehensively analysed, she was introduced to the
charms of Frankel – the greatest and most successful thoroughbred in modern
racing history. Frankel is the superstar of horses. He was unbeaten in his
14-race career, is worth more than £100m and his genes are so valuable that
his owners charge £125,000 for a quick roll in the hay.
Last week, his
first foal to be sold at public auction was snapped up for £1.15m. Any
wealthy owner aiming to produce a quality thoroughbred would consider Frankel
as a suitor, but Brown didn't want to leave anything to chance. His decision
to use him only came after he had consulted a British company that screens
equine genes to find the best possible match.
Looking at the
DNA of horses to find good breeding stock may seem obvious, but it goes
against centuries of tradition in this most conservative of sports where
suspicion of applied molecular genetics is rife. The Jockey Club insists on
gene tests to confirm parentage, but bans the use of cloned horses – even
though in 2012 the International Federation for Equestrian Sports announced
that clones would be allowed to compete in future Olympic Games. Indeed,
breeding decisions are made almost entirely by studying pedigree – the
records of bloodlines and race results that go back generations.
Brown isn't a typical owner. A former science correspondent of the Daily
Express in the 1960s, he made his fortune in science publishing.
He is sometimes called the wealthiest ex-journalist in Britain and is
fascinated, and knowledgeable, about molecular genetics. He was aware that
pedigree can be a poor guide to quality: an ancestor five generations back
contributes 3% of an animal's DNA.
Monkey is a classic example of the dangers of relying on bloodlines. In 2006
the bay two-year-old colt with an impeccable pedigree sold at auction for $16m
– the highest price of a publicly auctioned thoroughbred. It ran just four
times and failed to win once. "I'm a scientist and I have a belief in
science," says Brown. "So if you say there's a genetic reality to
all this, you ought to apply the rules of genetics. It makes sense."
Over the last
three years, Brown has worked closely with Dr Stephen Harrison, a geneticist
whose Canterbury-based company, Thoroughbred Genetics Limited, creates genetic
profiles of horses. The company, founded in 2000, was the first in the world
to offer DNA screening for racehorse performance. Over the last decade,
Harrison and colleagues have used whole genome analysis from thousands of
animals to identify markers linked to equine stamina, strength, respiratory
system and energy use. He claims Thoroughbred Genetics' techniques are 75%
better than conventional non-genetic methods of choosing winners from a group
of horses. Its methods give animals a performance profile based on an analysis
of 750 genetic markers. The tests generate cluster graphs that indicate
whether or not a horse is best suited to be a sprinter, a long-distance
athlete or something in between. By comparing the analyses of mares and
stallions, it is possible to get a clue where any progeny will fall in the
The tests also
show the level of inbreeding in a horse. We're used to thinking of inbreeding
as a problem. After all, it led to blood disorders in the royal families of
Europe in the early 20th century and hip problems in German shepherd dogs. But
sometimes a degree of inbreeding can be beneficial. One of the most striking
examples of this is the 90 Chillingham cattle of Northumbria, thought to be
descendants of medieval cattle. They are so inbred that calves are almost
genetically identical to their parents. Yet despite the narrow gene pool, the
Chillingham cattle are thriving. In 2001 a study in Nature
showed that no other cattle had joined the herd for more than 300 years –
yet the creatures are fit and healthy. All harmful recessive genes have been
purged from the group through a combination of inbreeding and selection.
cattle are an extreme example, but racehorses, too, are bred from a relatively
narrow genetic pool. Almost all of the world's half a million thoroughbreds
are descendants from just 28 healthy, fit and fast ancestors born in the 18th
and 19th centuries. And up to 95% can be traced to just one stallion – the
Darley Arabian, born in 1700. Centuries of selection for good hearts, healthy
respiratory systems and muscle strength has created a genetic pool that is
shallow, but not unhealthily so. Harrison's studies have shown that more
inbred horses tend to have the speed and strength that makes them good
sprinters. However, high levels of inbreeding in thoroughbreds doesn't suit
all race types. Outbred "mongrels" tend to be more robust and better
at withstanding the tough training regimes needed for longer courses.
It was partly
on the advice of Harrison that Brown bought Darysina and mated her with
within a roughly appropriate economic group, we gave Philip a list of
stallions that we thought would suit Darysina," says Harrison.
"Frankel actually came out top because he most suited the profile
required for the inbreeding level of Darysina and which might most likely
enhance 'genetic fixation' within the correct stamina zone and reduce
breeding matter because racing is big business. It's the second most popular
spectator sport with more than six million racegoers each year. According to
the British Horse Industry Confederation, it employs about 90,000 people
directly and indirectly and generates £3.7bn a year for the economy. Perhaps
surprisingly, some horses that never win a race can produce exceptional
offspring – if they are bred with the right stock.
Harrison's greatest successes is Sacred Choice, bred by Ken Williams's
Tarcoola Stud in Victoria, Australia, which had nine wins from 37 starts
including the Group One Doncaster Handicap at Randwick in Sydney and the Group
One Myer Classic at Flemington in Melbourne – two of Australia's big
one-mile races. Yet on paper its mother, Sacred Habit, wasn't up to much.
"Sacred Habit was sold because it was a rusty animal," says
Harrison. "And yet it bred this multiple group-one winner."
profile suggested that the mother had potential but was too inbred. On
Harrison's advice, she was bred with a stallion called Choisir to produce an
offspring with the right balance of strength and stamina and increased
mongrelism. The outbreeding did the trick and Sacred Choice became one of the
great Australian milers of recent times.
When talking to
enthusiastic equine geneticists such a Harrison, it's easy to forget that
theirs is a brand new branch of the horseracing industry. The horse genome's
32 pairs of chromosomes, written in 2.7 billion base pairs of DNA, were
sequenced and published only in 2009 and discoveries are being made all the
time about genetic links to performance.
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