Written by: Kim Izzo

Can genetic modification improve the abilities of sport horses?

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When we watch elite show jumping at the Olympics, Spruce Meadows, or in Wellington, we’re seeing the top echelon of equine athletes compete on equal footing. Breeding, training, rider skill and overall equine wellness factors into each horse-and-rider combination and determines if and when they find success in the ring. Watching these high-performance horses inspires many amateurs and professionals alike to ride better and train smarter to fulfil their own competitive dreams. But what if there was a shortcut available to you, not through better horsemanship or a well-bred horse, but instead a new animal that is genetically modified and developed in a lab? That may seem like far-fetched futurism, but in fact it’s far closer to reality than we imagine.

Building a Better Equine Genome

The Argentinian firm Kheiron-Biotech has developed a technique using CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”, which stands for Clustered, Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to focus on and enhance the action of the myostatin gene sequence which controls and limits the growth of muscles. Basically, they’ve created a scientific way to develop horses with more muscle mass, which theoretically would make these animals run faster for longer distances – and yes, jump higher. At the end of 2017, Kheiron-Biotech announced that they have healthy embryos created by this type of gene splicing that will be born by 2019.

The science behind these so-called “super horses” was originally developed for use in humans. The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA, was founded in 2004 in the hopes of bettering human health using genomics, the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes. Scientists at the Broad Institute identified a new system for human genome editing with the potential to increase the power and precision of genome engineering. CRISPR is the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology that can be programmed to target specific stretches of genetic code and edit DNA at precise locations. It can also be utilized for other purposes, such as new diagnostic tools. The researchers who work in this area see such scientific advancements as a way to eradicate cancer, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s, heart disease, and a host of other illnesses and debilitating conditions.

Of course, human health isn’t the only area of the natural world getting a makeover in the laboratory. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have had an impact on the food we eat. Proponents advocate that it’s a way of feeding a starving populace – grains, corn, rice, and other food staples can be “designed” to grow in drought zones and other areas affected by climate change. Opponents argue that messing with our food supply might allow unfamiliar organisms, bacteria, and antibiotic-resistant genes into our bodies and have negative and unforeseen affects. Labeling of GMO foods has become a bit of a health food trend and certainly organic food suppliers use their “No GMO” branding to profitable effect.

Customized Equine DNA

If eradicating disease and feeding starving people is the moral high ground on the side of genetic modification, where do these genetically-engineered horses fall on our ethical scale? Daniel Sammartino, founder of the Kheiron Biotech laboratory, told the British newspaper The Telegraph that, “This technology brings additional progress in horse breeding. It could be possible to achieve better horses in less time. Our next big challenge is not only to export our technology, but fundamentally develop these scientific advances in other animals for multiple purposes.” Such purposes potentially include increased muscle mass in cattle, poultry, and pigs so that more meat can be harvested for a grocery counter near you.

For the show jumping horse, the thinking behind the science is that it would allow breeders and trainers to “customize” the DNA of their horses in order to produce an animal with the most desirable traits. And one can assume this would come with a hefty price tag in a sport already bloated with wealthy patrons at the top of the sport.

If the name Khieron-Biotech sounds familiar, the company made headlines in 2016 when six of its cloned polo ponies won the Argentinian Open with polo star Adolfo Cambiaso on board. The first horse was cloned in 2003, with the other main laboratory in the business of bettering breeding being Crestview Genetics, based in Texas.

When it comes to clones, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) lifted a ban in 2013. “The performance of a cloned horse is unlikely to match that of the original horse for a number of reasons, including the maternal uterine environment, nutrition, training, and the understanding that clones are not exactly the same as the original,” explained Göran Akerström, FEI veterinary director. “Additionally, as progeny of cloned horses will be produced by conventional reproductive methods, such as natural covering or artificial insemination, maintaining fair play is protected. The FEI will therefore not forbid participation of clones or their progenies in FEI competitions. However, we will continue to monitor further scientific research.”

Response from the Horse Industry

As of this writing, no cloned horse has yet competed at the Olympics, and the FEI is committed to reviewing their position should welfare issues arise or clones were found to influence the sport. When asked about the potential impact of “super horses” that appear to be on the horizon, Akerström responded, “The FEI Veterinarian Committee will be meeting at the end of the month, where the subject of genetically-engineered horses will be discussed. Therefore we would give no further comment at this time.”

Ian Allison, senior vice-president of Spruce Meadows in Calgary, pointed out that the horses used in show jumping have evolved over the last several decades due to selective breeding. In the 1970s and part of the 1980s, for example, the Thoroughbred dominated the sport in North America. But with the influence of the European warmbloods, that changed – and it changed again when those larger horses were bred with lighter and hotter warmbloods such as Dutch horses and Selle Francais to meet the need for rideability and speed for the modern show jumping courses.

“Selectivity is nothing new,” Allison says, adding, “The other element about genetic modifying is that it isn’t nice to fool with mother nature, which brings all sorts of ethics questions. But there’s also the nurture versus nature scenario of performance.”

He points to three horses in particular whose size or conformation defied the odds of show jumping success: Big Ben, Hickstead, and current dynamo Fit for Fun. “None of these horses by definition fall under ideal textbook international sport horse. There’s always going to be the mental toughness and character elements versus the physical qualities that the industry and science of cloning or gene modification brings.”

Still, the scientific advances require the various sport federations, including our own Equestrian Canada, to pay close attention. “The proposition of genetically modified equines raises a significant amount of questions. As a National Federation, it is far too early to make a specific statement as to whether these horses would be permitted to compete at EC-sanctioned competitions. The FEI currently does not prevent cloned horses from competing, but are cloned horses and genetically modified equines the same?” asks Jon Garner, EC Director of Sport. “There is still much to know. For example, some of the current articles on this subject mention increased muscle mass and quicker growth. This in itself raises many questions. The modern horse has evolved over millions of years, so should horses develop quicker than they have evolved to? What are the repercussions of that? Will the skeleton be able to stand up to the extra stresses? What about the ligaments and tendons?

“The area that cannot be fast-tracked is experience,” he continues. “In the FEI disciplines it takes years for the horses to learn and gain the experience necessary to perform at the highest level. No matter what, the welfare of the horse must stay at the forefront of any equine venture, and fair play must be protected in sport.”

US Equestrian (USEF) Director of Sport Will Connell echoes the opinion of the EC and FEI. “The USEF is not aware of any research that looks at all of the implications of genetically-engineered horses and whether such horses have a significant advantage over non-genetically-engineered horses at the Olympic, or any, competition level. Accurate research needs to address many areas, including lameness susceptibility, trainability, and suitability of the horse to the discipline for USEF to properly respond as to whether these horses should be allowed to compete. Breeding papers are not required [for competition] and thus, USEF is not currently aware of how genetically-engineered horses would be tested or identified.

“Also, whilst the breeding of the horse is important, the way a horse is trained and cared for throughout its career, along with the talent and knowledge of the human athlete, is the predominant influencer on a horse’s success. At this time, USEF supports the FEI’s current policy and mirrors their commitment to monitor the scientific developments and progress within this field.”

Long-Term Impact of Genetically-modified Horses

Certainly, arguments can and will be made to treat these genetically-modified horses in the same manner as clones, citing differences in training and rider skill to even the playing field. And there is merit to that argument, but these new so-called super horses will begin life with a decided advantage over their naturally-bred counterparts and, if in the hands of skilled horse people, could develop into top equine athletes that surpass expectations. Will the jumps then get higher and wider? Will jump-off times shorten?

If these horses are allowed to compete, it would seem prudent that they be labelled in the same way as GMO food so that show organizers, breeders, buyers, trainers, and anyone else in the horse industry are made fully aware of what kind of animal they’re watching jump that grand prix.

What impact it will have on the breeding federations in Europe and elsewhere remains to be seen. Is genetic modification of horses a form of eugenics? In the human world we don’t (yet) approve of parents selecting certain genes in order to create the perfect child. It’s not “natural” or “moral.” But where money and competition are concerned, do morals go out the window? Or will breeders and owners who can afford the technology embrace it? What would that mean in several decades – is the potential there to wipe out the original bloodlines of the animals that have been our lifelong passion?

Big questions abound. Perhaps the answer is unknowable, or perhaps we can look to the movies for guidance or prescience: as Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”