Cloning Debate Continues in Equine World
Linda Juckette of Cumming, Ia., sees her horses the same way she sees her 14-year-old son, Cole.
In her eyes, each individual is different and special.
That's why Juckette is no fan of cloning, a topic that has been seeping through equine circles since the first horse was cloned in 2003. The American Quarter Horse Association is debating whether to allow clones to be registered. It held an all-day seminar on cloning in March, but put off a resolution to permit cloning until 2010.
Juckette, who breeds thoroughbreds at her farm and campaigned the stakes winner Wild L, said she'd rather take her chances breeding new horses than cloning existing stars.
"I would never do it. I think you take away your specialty," she said. Pointing to Cole, she added, "Like if I wanted to clone him, why is he special?
"If some guy says, 'I want nine of those (clones),' what kind of satisfaction is that? Whereas, if you breed a stallion and mare and get a Wild L, that to me is much more satisfying. I know I did the mating, I did the whole nine yards."
The subject raises interesting horse racing questions: If you lined up clones of Cigar, Smarty Jones, Point Given, Silver Charm, and Ghostzapper, who would win?
And if you cloned one of those champions, would the offspring be just as good? Possibly, said Max Rothschild, a professor in Iowa State University's animal science department, as long as the clone's environment is similar.
"If you have an outstanding horse, its clone ought to be outstanding also, unless somebody screwed it up," Rothschild said. "If I raced 10 different Seattle Slews against 10 difference sets of competitions, I would expect Seattle Slew to win most of those races. His genetic makeup is that he ought to."
Years ago, horse owners let nature and true love take its course.
"You'd put a mare and a stallion together in a pasture, and let them pasture-breed," said Duane Roland, a standardbred breeder from Grinnell, Ia.
Now, champion barrel racers, endurance horses, show jumpers, and cutting horses have all been cloned.
'I'm totally amazed that any of this works'@
Cloning, which a few years ago was more science fiction than reality, is in its infancy. How far it will spread is guesswork, but two cloned mules began racing at California fairs in 2006.
More than 20 horses have been cloned worldwide, all at three labs - one in Italy, at Texas A&M, and at ViaGen, a commercial laboratory based in Austin, Texas. Most of the horses are cloned for breeding, but one cutting horse owner told the AQHA Journal that he would like to see his clones compete.
Texas A&M cloned the first horse in the U.S. in 2005 and has cloned 13 more since. Dr. Katrin Hinrichs, the lead scientist on the Texas A&M program, said even she finds the process mind-boggling.
"I'm totally amazed that any of this works," Hinrichs said. "I'm totally amazed that embryo transfers work. I think it's miraculous."
Hinrichs said she's excited about cloning as a way to help breeding and find ways to improve horses' health - rather than to duplicate a racing star.
"I don't have any interest in that,' Hinrichs said. "Those genetics have already proven what they can do. I don't see the purpose. It might be fun as a lark, but I can't see the benefit to breeding. It would be because the owner wants the purse money.
"In my mind, the process is to help make the breed better and better, rather than to breed the same horse over and over."
One racehorse Hinrichs said she'd like to clone is Cigar, who won 16 straight races and nearly $10 million in the 1990s, but was sterile as a stud. Her goal wouldn't be to clone a champion runner, but to see if the clone would be able to breed.
"Why was Cigar unsuccessful at stud? Was it the environment or genetics?" Hinrichs asked. "That would be fascinating to me. I'd love to do that."
Costs of cloning go beyond dollars, cents@
It costs about $150,000 to clone a horse and the process - which takes tissue from the donor and transfers the DNA into an egg in which the genetic traits have been removed - has more failures than successes.
Only 5 to 10 percent of the eggs become successful embryos, Hinrichs said. She said it took three embryos apiece to clone each of the last three horses foaled at Texas A&M. And that's a drastic improvement from the 101 embryos needed to produce a successful clone in Italy.
Once born, however, the foals are usually healthy and free of the abnormalities that affect mice and other animals that are cloned, Hinrichs said.
The debate has stretched beyond the laboratory, though.
Oklahoma in April passed a bill that prohibits racing cloned horses.
"I don't think it'll happen," said Butch Hammer, president of the Iowa Quarter Horse Racing Association. "Too many people are against it."
Iowa State's Rothschild is a clone himself, and not just because he works as a Cyclone. He has an identical twin brother.
"I'm a clone," Rothschild said. "If you looked at my brother and I, and we're both 57, you'd swear we were the same person. However, our wives would clearly demonstrate that we are not the same people. It's the old nature-versus-nurture argument.
"Horses are athletes. They are shaped in some way by their training, their experience, their competition. I can put two identical clones on the track, but unless I train them side-by-side, day-by-day through their lifetime, I wouldn't expect them to be the same horse."
Physically, Rothschild said he would expect clones to look similar to the original - but perhaps not identical. How their color genes are distributed could differ and how they grow after nursing could also be a difference.
"Genetically, at conception, the clones are equal," he said. "Over time, there will be some changes genetically by environmental experiences."
Silver Charm, the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, was known for digging in when challenged and grinding out photo-finish victories. Would his clone have the same grit?
"Behavior traits are also genetic," Rothschild said. "If you have a horse that is a natural competitor, I would expect his clone to be the same way."