Evolution of Italy's Horse Breeds Studied

Evolution of Italy's Horse Breeds Studied

The Giara horse was one of the 10 Italian breeds the researchers studied.

Photo: Helga Steinreich/Wikimedia Commons

The history of Italy, with its famous boot shape projecting down toward the center of the Mediterranean Sea, includes a vast crossroads culture. It has served as a stopover and trading site for international movement and commerce since prehistoric times, scientists have learned. That “crossroads culture” brought with it a rich and diversified history of horse culture, as well.

But thousands of years have faded out the stories that tell the origins of Italy’s horses. Today, modern genomics technology has allowed researchers to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the development of Italy’s primary native breeds. And it confirms that these horses aren’t unlike their country’s culture: the product of massive diversity coming from across the Old World—Europe, Asia, and northern Africa.

“Despite the fact that Italy has always been a small country, it used to be a real melting pot of ancient migrations across the Mediterranean Sea,” said Alessandro Achilli, PhD, assistant professor of genetics in the Department of Biology and Biotechnology “L. Spallanzani” at the University of Pavia, in Italy.

When comparing their genomic results to those of horses across Europe and Asia, researchers found “a clear geographic pattern” in modern-day horses’ genetic makeup—with a focal point of “closely related intermediate breeds” in the heart of the Italian peninsula, said Irene Cardinali, a PhD candidate at the University of Perugia, also in Italy.

The team reported that “this genetic feature likely reflects the geographic position of Italy, in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, and its cultural/economic past as a crossroad of migratory waves from the Western Asian coasts to continental Europe.”

The research team carried out genomic studies on 407 horses representing the 10 most recognized native Italian horse breeds: Bardigiano, Esperia, Giara, Lipizzan, Maremmano, Monterufolino, Murgese, Sarcidano, Sardinian Anglo-Arab, and Tolfetano.

Specifically, they analyzed the DNA of the horses’ mitochondria, rather than the DNA of the horses themselves. Mitochondria DNA (mtDNA) descends only from maternal lines, so it has become a useful tool for evolution researchers to study origins. It was mtDNA, for example, that allowed Achilli to identify the “equine Eve,” the ancestral mother of all modern horses, in 2012.

However, contrary to what they had expected, they found very few genetic differences from one Italian breed to another. “I was surprised by the fact that we weren’t able to identify breed-specific mitochondrial lines, with some notable exceptions concerning the most isolated breeds,” Cardinali said. Those included the Monterufolino and Sardinian breeds, which were particularly separated from other Italian breeds because of geographical barriers (mountains and water, respectively).

The researchers also analyzed the mtDNA of 36 pure Arabian horses, as modern breeders have frequently used Arabian stallions to “refine” their native breeds. But, apparently, these stallions had little effect on the current horses’ genomes, Achilli and Cardinali said: “(Our) observation indicates that the Arabian horse contributed, at most, marginally in the formation of the modern mtDNA gene pools of these breeds.”

Such a study was only possible thanks to technological advances in genomic research, they added. Like the 2012 “equine Eve” study, the current research project also benefited from modern genomics techniques used in human studies, Cardinali said.

“Only the employment of sophisticated statistical and demographic tools, the same that are routinely used to study human populations (e.g., network and principal component analysis), allowed us to reconstruct the intra- and interbreed relationships, which were eventually used to validate historical information and genealogical data,” she said.

The study, “An Overview of Ten Italian Horse Breeds through Mitochondrial DNA,” was published in PLoS One

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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