Fri, Nov 30, 2018 - Page 16 News List

Scientists aim to map Argentine polo horse genome to produce champions

AFP, BUENOS AIRES

Are champions born, or raised? That is the question scientists in Argentina are trying to answer as they look to pinpoint the genes that make local horses the best in the world for playing polo.

In Argentina, polo is a big deal and big business, and to that end, cloning has already been used to reproduce the finest existing mounts.

However, scientists want to go one step further and map the entire genome of the Argentine polo horse to create the perfect specimen.

From next month, a group of five universities is to analyze 80,000 horses from the breed as part of a project that will try to identify the ideal genetic balance that makes up a polo horse.

The Argentine horses used to play polo have been bred specifically over decades by crossing a Criollo line, descended from the original pure-blooded Andalusian and Arab mounts transported to the New World by Spanish conquistadores, and English thoroughbreds, introduced at the end of the 19th century, when British immigrants also imported polo.

For veterinarian Guillermo Buchanan, the Argentine polos “are unique” because of their speed and durability, and because of their mix of explosiveness and docility.

During a polo match, these horses, also known as “polo ponies” due to their agility, “change direction at speed, slow down, turn, accelerate while turning,” said admiring horse breeder Pablo Trigo, who is also comanaging the project.

The Argentine polo ponies distinguish themselves in their rate of learning and sensibility to their rider’s desires. They are the most cloned animal in the world.

At stud farms in the Buenos Aires area, they are looked after as if works of art. Now science is being used to figure out how to reproduce the finest animals.

The project is expected to start producing results within three years and would precede the launch of a genetic selection program aimed at optimizing the horses’ physical and temperamental characteristics.

There is nothing new about using applied research and biotechnology to improve polo ponies, but interest in the science is growing, as is the money people are prepared to pay for its results.

The clone of a legendary mare fetched US$800,000 at auction.

According to estimates, there are about 200 cloned Argentine polo ponies, many copies of elite-level mounts.

So far, all seem to be in excellent health.

Argentina “is absolutely at the cutting edge of applied research into polo ponies,” said geneticist Sebastian Demyda, one of the project’s leaders.

This includes every biotechnological technique from embryonic transfer to cloning and gender selection: mares are preferred because of their more docile temperament.

Argentina’s polo association accepts cloning — although not everyone considers this ethical and one private clinic specializing in embryo manipulation has ceased its activities.

“[Genetic] engineering is the limit,” Buchanan said, adding that tampering with individual embryos is a step too far.

However, cloning has become common practice in polo — and while clones were initially used only for reproductive purposes, now they are used in competition, too.

Elite players can have up to six or seven clones in their pens.

“The clones are doing very well, they’re winning prizes,” Demyda said.

However, cloning has its drawbacks, not the least of which when it comes to the gene pool.

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