During a three-year study on articular (joint) cartilage maturation, researchers at the Gluck Equine Research Center used new genetic techniques to investigate how joint cartilage changes between newborn foals and young adult horses.

It is well-understood that bone structure remodels during the first few years of life and as a horse initiates strenuous exercise. However, similar types of changes in the structure and function of joint cartilage are not widely appreciated and were the focus of this study led by Michael Mienaltowski, DVM, and Jamie MacLeod, VMD, PhD.

Transcriptional profiling was used to evaluate changing patterns of gene expression reflecting cartilage growth and development. Transcriptional profiling is a new technique in biomedical research that allows scientists to look at the expression of all the genes concurrently as a group. For an analogy, transcriptional profiling would be like looking at the whole forest, or all of the genes, before focusing on a single tree, or a single gene.

In previous studies, evaluating many thousands of equine genes concurrently was not possible due to a lack of the critical technical resources for horses. By looking at the entire gene expression profile, scientists are now able to get a broader perspective of functional changes in cartilage or any other horse sample.

Seven newborn foals and nine 4- to 5-year-old adult horses were compared in the study. The results demonstrated substantial changes in the function of cartilage cells between newborn foals and young adult horses. Research from other scientists has indicated that normal early activity in a foal, such as running around in a paddock, is important to the cartilage maturation process. When observing joint cartilage tissue in foals and young adult horses, it looks very similar on the outside. However, patterns of gene expression within cartilage cells and the structural organization of cartilage proteins indicate that important changes occur during the first few months after birth.

Articular cartilage is a critical tissue in synovial joints, essential for joint movement, and necessary for the dissipation of mechanical forces placed on a horse's joints during physical activity. As knowledge is accumulated about the substantial changes that joint cartilage goes through early in life, scientists will need to focus on how these changes impact joint health in adult horses, including susceptibility to important diseases like osteoarthritis. Joint disease is the most common cause of lameness and shortened careers in equine athletes.--Jamie MacLeod

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