First Commercially Cloned Mare Born

Scientists and veterinarians today (March 30) announced the birth of the first commercially cloned mare, created from the cells of champion cutting horse Royal Blue Boon. The filly, Royal Blue Boon Too, was carried to term by a recipient mare and was born on Feb. 19 at Royal Vista Southwest Farms in Purcell, Okla.


Royal Blue Boon and her clone, Royal Blue Boon Too, pictured with Dr. Jim Bailey of Royal Vista Southwest in Purcell, Okla., and Royal Blue Boon's owner, Elaine Hall of Weatherford, Texas.

Royal Blue Boon Too is one of several cloned foals that have been born in 2006--cloned foals have been born at Texas A&M University this spring. The first equine clones were born in 2003; mules in Idaho came first, followed by a filly in Italy. In 2005, the first commercially cloned horse was born, created from the genetic material of a champion endurance gelding.

Registered Quarter Horse Royal Blue Boon is the all-time leading producer of cutting horses in the world. She earned $381,764 in her career, and her progeny have earned more than $2.5 million. The mare is 26 years old--long past her performance and breeding career--so her owner made the decision to have the mare cloned so that her genetic material could be preserved.

Two companies, ViaGen and Encore Genetics, partnered on the project, and have continued to offer the opportunity to commercially clone horses. Blake Russell, vice president of sales and marketing for Viagen, the company that provides the animal cloning technology, said, "We have several mares in foal with clones," and the first one to foal was Royal Blue Boon's clone. "Expect six additional clones from notable champions this year." Viagen cannot release the names of the horses being cloned because of contractual agreements.

To produce a clone, a veterinarian takes a small tissue biopsy from the donor horse. He ships the cells to Viagen, whose scientists grow the cells in culture before performing nuclear transfer, where they take DNA from the donor cells and insert it into enucleated eggs (eggs from which the genetic material has been removed). The resulting embryos are grown in an incubator for several days, then a veterinarian places the embryos into recipient females as he would with any embryo transfer.

Irina Polejaeva, PhD, chief scientific officer for ViaGen, explained that the donor biopsy generally consists of skin and some muscle cells, "We culture them in vitro and grow fibroblast cells (found in connective tissue), which is what we use for cloning," she said. The genetic material is cooled for preservation. "To make a single copy of the original animal, we'll typically do just one or two (embryo) transfers (of one embryo each) and wait for the outcome." A viable pregnancy was achieved after three transfer attempts with the cloned embryos of Royal Blue Boon.

Brad Stroud, DVM, of Encore Genetics, who has a background in embryo transfer techniques, in vitro fertilization, and ultrasound, said, "This represents a significant advance in reproductive technology for horse breeders, giving them the opportunity to consider gene banking and cloning for important genetic lines…This process essentially creates a twin of a champion.

Stroud explained that although the clone is genetically identical to the donor, there is no guarantee it will perform as well or better than the original animal. "The resulting breeding value is exactly the same as the original," he said. "The progeny of the clone will receive the exact genetics as the previous animal."

Polejaeva assures that even though 26-year-old cells were used in Royal Blue Boon's cloning procedure, the genetic age of the clone is that of a foal. "During the cloning process, the age of the cell is reset, and therefore the life span of the animal will be the same as the genetic potential of that animal," she said.

In terms of size and weight, the filly has the same genetic potential to be the size and build of Royal Blue Boon, but such measurements as weaning weights, for example, could be misleading. Veterinarians say that this has been shown in cattle, presumably because recipient cows provide a completely different gestation, birth, and nursing experience for the clone than the bovine donor might have had. It has been shown that calves with lower-than-expected weaning weights caught up to their genetic potential once they were weaned.

It's too early to know if cloned horses will be able to breed and gestate normally (the oldest equine clone turned three this spring), but what Stroud has observed in cattle makes him optimistic. Bovine clones have been reproducing just as predictably as their donors.

Cloning's Cost

United States-based customers pay $150,000 for the first "copy" of their horse. It is approximately $1,500 to bank cooled or frozen genetic material for future cloning, but if the owner chooses to clone within a month of banking their horse's genes, the cost of the gene banking is absorbed into the cloning cost. Additional clones after the first would be $90,000 apiece.

"For the coming year, obviously there's a lot of interest," said Stroud. "Frankly, we wanted to make sure before we went out on a marketing blitz, we wanted to see the proof for ourselves…we wanted to see live, healthy foals. We're in the process of acquiring clients for the next breeding season as we speak. The early interest is very positive at this point."

Whether cloned horses and their progeny will be accepted into breed registries remains to be seen. As of now, only the cloned mules have been accepted into a registry. ViaGen and Encore don’t plan to become involved in any attempt to register cloned foals, unless it's on a consulting basis.

Stroud believes that cloning will become as accepted as other advanced reproduction techniques. "AI (artificial insemination), for example, was a big fear when it first came out, maybe bigger than cloning at the time," he said. "And then along came IVF and obviously there was a bigger fear that we were creating life outside the womb. Now there are tens of thousands of IVF conceived calves all over the globe and the technology is growing rapidly.

"I think…cloning is going to have a similar learning curve," he continued. "We're essentially creating identical twins, only removed by time, and it's really rather simplistic in nature. I think education is the key to the acceptance of this technology."

About the Author

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief, received a B.A. in Journalism and Equestrian Studies from Averett College in Danville, Virginia. A Pony Club and 4-H graduate, her background is in eventing, and she is schooling her recently retired Thoroughbred racehorse, Happy, toward a career in that discipline. She also enjoys traveling, photography, cycling, and cooking in her free time.

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