Solving Health Problems Through Genetics

The solution to health and soundness problems facing horses might be as close as the horse itself. Laminitis, colic, respiratory disease, and even joint problems could be prevented or treated using genetics. At the Blue Ribbon Horse Genome conference on March 2, researchers and horse industry representatives debated whether the main objective of genetic research should be to create a complete gene map of the horse, or with limited funding, if projects should focus on specific health-related questions.

Moderator Nat White, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, gave an example of a potential benefit of having the equine gene map completed. "A particular gene is expressed when the horse gets a bone chip on his knee. We could locate that gene and eventually put an innocuous virus into it, shut down protein production, and stop the swelling."

Starting in 1995, scientists worldwide have worked to create a gene map of the horse. The technology is rapidly improving to locate genes associated with various problems. More than 900 genes have been mapped in the horse, and this work has led to "decoding" the genes that cause hereditary diseases linked to breeds such as HYPP (hyperkalemic periodic paralysis) in Quarter Horses, CID (combined immunodeficiency syndrome) in Arabians, and OLWS (overo lethal white syndrome) in Paint horses. Scientists from Auburn, Cornell, Texas A&M, and the Universities of Kentucky, Minnesota, Georgia, and California, Davis, made presentations representing the worldwide genomics collaboration.

The conference began with the replay of a television feature highlighting the application of genome research to the Thoroughbred racing industry. In the video, researchers, veterinarians, and horse owners discussed how problems that hinder athletic potential (i.e., poor leg conformation or respiratory disease) might be prevented one day through genetics.

Michel Vandenplas, BSc, MSc, PhD, of the University of Georgia, and Jim Belknap, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVS, of Auburn, explained potential applications of functional genomics, which looks at gene expressions associated with disease. Advancement of their research could allow genetic prevention and treatment of colic, laminitis, developmental bone disease, and respiratory disease. Genomics has given birth to pharmacogenomics, which is used to evaluate drug effects on gene expression in the horse.

The Blue Ribbon Horse Genome conference was sponsored by the American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA), Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, and the Morris Animal Foundation during the AQHA convention in Texas.

Learn more about the horse genome project at

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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