Scientists from University College Dublin, University of Cambridge and Irish company Equinome say they have traced the origin of the ‘speed gene’ in thoroughbred racehorses back to a single British mare that lived in the UK around 300 years ago.
Their findings have today been published in Nature Communications.
The scientists said they traced the origin of the speed gene (a C type myostatin gene variant) following the analysis of DNA from hundreds of horses, including DNA extracted from the skeletal remains of 12 celebrated thoroughbred stallions born between 1764 and 1930.
Dr Emmeline Hill, the senior author of the study, and a genomics scientist at the School of Agriculture and Food Science at UCD, spoke today about how changes in racing since the genesis of the thoroughbred racehorse have “shaped” the distribution of speed gene types over time and in different racing regions.
Tracing speed gene’s origins back three centuries
However, she said the research team had been able to identify that the original speed gene variant entered the thoroughbred from a single founder.
“This was most likely a British mare about 300 years ago, when local British horse types were the pre-eminent racing horses, prior to the formal foundation of the thoroughbred racehorse,” said Hill.
The team traced all modern variants of the original speed gene to the Nearctic racehorse (1954-1973). They also attribute the wider expansion of these variants to Northern Dancer (1961-1990), the son of Nearctic.
The scientists said they traced the economically valuable gene variant by determining ‘speed gene’ type in almost 600 horses from 22 Eurasian and North American horse breeds, museum bone and tooth specimens from 12 legendary thoroughbred stallions, 330 elite performing modern thoroughbreds from three continents, 40 donkeys and two zebras.
Collaborators in the study were scientists from Trinity College Dublin, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.
Parish Hall (far right), wins the Group 1 Dubai Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket in October 2011 for owner and trainer Jim Bolger
Along with the Irish horse trainer and breeder Jim Bolger, Hill is also the co-founder of Equinome, a UCD spin-out company that’s based at NovaUCD. The company has developed the Equinome Speed Gene Test, which is now being used by certain circles in the global bloodstock and racing industry to identify the optimum racing distance for individual thoroughbred horses.