Embryo Transfer- The future of breeding?

By Evie (19/4/18)

Embryonic transfer (ET) foals are becoming increasingly common in many equine industries. I first came across this form of impregnation when talking to a friend about Quarter Horse racing in America. She was confused as there were two different horses, both two year olds, who had the same dam but different sires. We later figured out that these foals were the result of embryonic transfer.

This consists of a dam being impregnated, either by frozen sperm or by direct mounting, by a sire. If the egg is fertilized it is flushed from the genetic mother, using a sterile salt and protein solution. This embryo, currently at microscopic size is the put into a surrogate dam. This allows the genetic mother to continue to compete, or even produce more than one foal in the same year, from the same genetic mother.

ET is extremely common in the Eventing industry. It’s not unusual for mares to compete into their late teens, at which point their best breeding days are over. This method of insemination allows these mares to produce offspring whilst still competing, as well as allowing more foals out of certain mares.

It would be safe to assume, therefore, that ET would be common in horse racing, an industry that often prioritizes breeding over racing careers, such is the case of Middle Park Winner The Last Lion, who retired at two.

However, embryonic transfer foals are not allowed to compete under Jockey Club rules.

Section V, Rule 1D of the Jockey Club states:

“To be eligible for registration, a foal must be the result of a stallion’s natural service with a broodmare (which is the physical mounting of a broodmare by a stallion), and a natural gestation must take place in, and delivery must be from, the body of the same broodmare in which the foal was conceived. For example… any foal produced by the processes of Artificial Insemination, Embryo Transfer, Cloning or any other form of genetic manipulation not herein specified, shall not be eligible for registration.”

This rule makes it extremely clear that ET, and other forms of artificial insemination, including frozen sperm, is completely disallowed from competing.

However, ET could be more beneficial to the sport. It would allow champion mares to continue to race, all whilst still producing foals. It would also allow these mares to produce more foals, and have more of an impact on worldwide breeding stock. As well as this, it would allow mares who may struggle to give birth to still have foals, without having to risk their lives.

Moreover this treatment is very cheap, in horse racing terms, with most centers quoting prices of £2,000. This may not sound cheap, but in a sport where a mating with a stallion can cost up to £250,000 this small sum of money is not a harsh price to pay for foaling without the risk of injury or without having to retire the mare.

So why is this groundbreaking treatment not allowed in Jockey Club rules?

Horse racing is a very traditional sport. Although pioneering training techniques are happening, there is a lack of this in the breeding aspect of the sport. There is a risk that an embryo may be tampered with. This is why the Jockey Club counts ET as ‘genetic manipulation’. It would not happen would it have not been for humans.

In some aspects, I would like to see ET brought to the sport. Champion mares could race for longer, meaning we would not see fillies retire when they are three. Mares could race for longer, which (like in the case of Winx) could bring more people into the sport.

However, there is always the risk that someone will over do it. Someone will risk it too far. That could be through over breeding their mare, producing tens of foals from a single mare. There’s also the risk that mares won’t be retired, and that they would risk racing at a high level when they get to an older age.

There is also the very real threat of over breeding. So many foals would be produced, as the valuable race mares wouldn’t need to go through pregnancy for 10 months every time they conceive a foal. Over breeding is already an issue (with many horses going to slaughter as there are not enough homes to place them in), so this form of breeding would only worsen the problem.

Another form of breeding which comes straight out of science fiction is cloning. Surprisingly, clones are not uncommon.

They are most commonly used in instances where champion horses have been gelded, and have been cloned purely for breeding purposes. One example of this is with the champion showjumper Gem Twist.

He won the won the “American Grand Prix Association Horse of the Year” title three times, and is regarded as one of the best show-jumpers in history. He would have been valued highly as a stud, but he was gelded before he became champion. This meant that he could not produce offspring.

However, after his death in 2006, two genetic clones of him were made. The first was known as Gemini and the second was known as Murka’s Gem.

On September 15 2008, a cloning lab known as Cryozootech reported the birth of the first genetic clone of Gem Twist. Following this, in May 2012 the first reported foal by Gemini was born. This foal was a healthy chestnut colt out of the thoroughbred mare Otherwise Engaged.

Of course, cloning is not allowed. It’s understandable. If a clone, or many clones of a horse like Zenyatta was made, then the value of consistent champions like her would be undervalued.

But could clones be used in instances where champion racehorses have been geldings?

For example, National Hunt horses? If there was a clone of a champion gelding like Sprinter Sacre, or Hurricane Fly then foals of that clone could go for millions.

However, again we see an ethical problem. Is it right to use the cloned foals for breeding based purely off what their DNA says.

Racing isn’t just about bloodlines, DNA or muscles. In most horses you have to find that will to win. Without sufficient scientific testing, at this point we are unable to tell if clones have the same exact mind and thought process as the horses that they are the clones of.

For now at least, it will be a while until this issue is looked into. But for me personally, I would hate to see the art of breeding go down the drain, in favour of using science for our monetary benefit.

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