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Modern racehorses all share 'speed gene' from one common ancestor - study

An Irish scientists says all modern Throughbreds share a “speed gene” which originated in a British mare living 300 years ago.

Dr Emmeline Hill and Jim Bolger, the renowned Irish racehorse trainer and breeder, pictured with Banimpire, a multiple-Group race winning racehorse.
Dr Emmeline Hill and Jim Bolger, the renowned Irish racehorse trainer and breeder, pictured with Banimpire, a multiple-Group race winning racehorse.
Image: Courtesy of UCD

ALL MODERN RACEHORSES share a “speed gene” which originated from a single common ancestor, according to findings published today in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

Irish scientist Dr Emmeline Hill, a genomics scientist at the School of Agriculture and Food Science, University College Dublin, led the research which traced back the origins of the coveted gene to a single British horse who lived 300 years ago. The so-called “speed gene” itself was first identified in 2010.

The origin of the speed gene – otherwise known as C type myostatin gene variant – was revealed following the analysis of DNA from hundreds of horses, including DNA extracted from the skeletal remains of 12 celebrated stallions born between 1764 and 1930.

“Changes in racing since the foundation of the Thoroughbred have shaped the distribution of ‘speed gene’ types over time and in different racing regions,” explained Hill.

“But we have been able to identify that the original ‘speed gene’ variant entered the Thoroughbred from a single founder, which was most likely a British mare about 300 years ago, when local British horse types were the preeminent racing horses, prior to the formal foundation of the Thoroughbred racehorse,” she said.

The international scientific team led by Hill and other scientists from Equinome Ltd and the University of Cambridge, traced all modern variants of the gene to the legendary Nearctic (1954–1973), and attribute the wider expansion of these variants to Northern Dancer (1961–1990), the son of Nearctic, and one of the most influential stallions of modern times.

“We 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 3 continents, 40 donkeys and two zebras”, Hill said.

Co-author Dr Mim Bower from the University of Cambridge, UK, said that the findings pointed to a British mare as the most likely single founder of the original ‘speed gene’ because “one of the lines of evidence from the research demonstrated that the prize stallions of the 17th and 18th centuries had two copies of the T type speed gene variant (T:T) which is linked to greater stamina.”

The research has been published in scientific journal Nature Communications.

Read: And they’re off – Irish scientists develop genetic test to find tomorrow’s top racehorses>


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