The idea of cloning a horse may sound fanciful at first, but the technology is there, and in some cases, there is good reason to take advantage of it.
"It's real, and it's here and it works," said Blake Russell, vice president of business development at ViaGen, the only commercial firm in the world cloning horses.
As more people have begun to use the process to produce an exact genetic twin to outstanding individual animals, more people are wondering if cloning could be right for them.
Even when you breed the same stallion and mare, full siblings are not alike. "Any time you do breeding you take a risk. You never get exactly the same combination of genes," Russell said. "With cloning you now have the opportunity to replicate the genotype."
By producing horses that are genetically identical to top performers, you greatly expand their reproductive potential. While not every animal is suitable for cloning, the opportunity to protect and multiply the genetics of superior animals makes cloning a valuable tool for horse owners and breeders.
We don't expect the world is going to stop breeding and clone all the horses we have," Russell said, adding that there are some good reasons to produce a clone.
Cloning can extend the reproductive life of top-producing animals, produce studs that are genetically identical to top-performing geldings, keep up with demand for their semen, embryos and offspring, and preserve a horse's genes as insurance against unexpected injury or loss.
Just one of the success stories is that of world champion barrel racer Scamper. As a gelding, his natural ability could never be passed on to a new generation, but now, a clone has been produced that will be used as a breeding stallion.
Similarly, as a top breeding mare ages and reaches the end of her reproductive years, she can be cloned, and then the new mare used to continue to produce more offspring.
Because of confidentiality issues, ViaGen does not give out the names of clients or their horses that have been cloned with the exception of a few like Scamper, where the owner has agreed to share their story.
"We're cloning every kind of horse you can imagine. It's really exciting," Russell said, mentioning the bucking horse Airwolf as one of the cloned animals.
For some breeds, such as Thoroughbreds, clones cannot be accepted for registration. Other breed registries are looking at the technology and have accepted clones or are making their own decisions as more cloned horses are created.
"In the sport horse world, they look at registration differently," Russell explained that these breeds are looking at an animal based on conformation and performance
ViaGen was founded in Austin, Texas in January 2002 to provide commercial bovine, equine, and porcine gene banking, cloning, and genomics services. The technologies they use were developed in part by scientists at Texas A&M University.
In 2003, ViaGen acquired ProLinia of Athens, Georgia, doubling their cloning capacity, and providing rights to cloning technologies developed by the Roslin Institute of Edinburgh, Scotland.
Cloning results in an animal that has the same genes as the original. To clone an animal requires a sample of the animal's genes, in the form of a small biopsy sample taken from the horse's neck. ViaGen provides a biopsy kit to be used by your veterinarian, and a shipping container for transport of the material to their lab.
The sample must come from a live horse. "The worst thing that happens in our business is someone calls and says 'my horse died last week'," Russell stressed the importance of planning ahead if you are considering cloning.
Once ViaGen receives the biopsy sample, the lab cultures the animal's cells, then transfers DNA from those cells into eggs from which the genetic material has been removed. They grow the resulting embryos in an incubator for several days, and then transfer them to recipient females using a traditional embryo transfer process.
The company has a group of 3000 recipient mares to choose from. A mare is chosen for each transfer that best suits the size expected for the foal. "We select mares that have the attributes we want to reproduce sound foals," Russell said.
After a normal gestation period the foals are born Just 60 days later, after DNA testing to confirm their identities, and veterinary examinations to confirm their health, the foal is ready to go home with the owner.
Another service ViaGen offers is gene banking, preserving an animal's genes in liquid nitrogen, where they will remain available for future use. Unlike storing semen, the biopsy sample carries the complete genetic information to make an exact twin of the donor animal at some future date. Even if the sample is never used to create a clone, it is available in case something should happen to a valuable animal that otherwise could not be replaced.
Cloning is not inexpensive, but when compared to the cost of a top horse it may be reasonable. To produce a clone from tissue biopsy to a live foal costs $150,000. Payment starts with 10 percent when contracts are signed, an additional 10 percent when the recipient mare is 120 days pregnant, and the remainder when the foal is ready to be picked up. Gene banking services are available for $1,500 with an annual storage fee of $150.
Russell is finding that the market for cloned horses is changing, with more people looking to recreate a top horse for performance. "Early on, most definitely the trend was for people producing breeders. Those were early users of the technology. Today, it's probably a 50/50 blend," he said.
Russell points out that environment is also important in the creation of a top performance horse. "It's hard to replicate that 100 percent," he said. "The DNA is extremely powerful. The performance potential is in those cloned individuals."
ViaGen has regional representatives like Kathleen McNulty who covers the Pennsylvania area. They are horsemen who are able to explain the cloning process in detail and meet with clients personally. ViaGen also has an informative Web site at www.viagen.com