I’ve written about the horse cloning company ViaGen in past articles, including more about the history of cloned horses included in this article
There is a survey below the NBC news article that asks “Should cloning be used to create animals for competition or food?” If ViaGen wins this court case, will it crack open the door for them to clone horses for food? (think of what Monsanto has done) – Debbie Coffey
Horse cloners try to force their way into the starting gate
Lynn Roberts / AP
Rocky Mountain Fly (12) with jockey Stevie Gillum aboard, narrowly edges Political Option (3), with John Hamilton in the irons, to win the Louisiana Champions Day Quarter Horse Derby at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans on Dec. 8, 2012.
Editor’s note: This story includes a correction.
Horse race fixers have long used “ringers” to pull off betting coups, but a new kind of ringer — genetic duplicates cloned from the DNA of yesterday’s champions — could soon be barreling around a racetrack near you if two Texas horsemen have their way.
In a lawsuit set for trial Tuesday in Texas, the horsemen are asking a federal judge to force the American Quarter Horse Association to register cloned horses and their offspring, arguing that it is violating antitrust law by refusing to do so.
A decision favoring the plaintiffs — Jason Abraham of Canadian, Texas, and Gregg Veneklasen of Amarillo — could clear the way for clones to compete in sanctioned quarter horse races at scores of racetracks in the U.S. and elsewhere. The clones would in many cases be genetic duplicates of quarter horse royalty like Tailor Fit, a two-time world champion — and a gelding — who now has a young copy named Pure Tailor Fit.
Debate is raging over how cloning could impact the American Quarter Horse — an agile horse bred for speed rather than stamina. Quarter horse racing, which generated more than $300 million in wagering at U.S. racetracks in 2012, is the third most popular form of equine racing after thoroughbred and standardbred racing, and quarter horses also are prized in rodeo events for their athleticisim. Stallions like Pure Taylor Fit can bring in $1,500 or more per mating.
Whether or not the pro-cloning argument carries the day in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Amarillo, equine clones will be appearing before the year is out in other equine sporting venues — including non-breed specific rodeo competitions like barrel racing and reining, polo matches and equestrian events leading up to the 2014 Olympics, according to backers of the technology.
Cloning critics say allowing the procedure could concentrate the genetic pool and undermine efforts to improve the breed.
In a statement on its website, the AQHA says it intends to vigorously defend its ban, arguing that as a voluntary private association it has the right to set rules favored by a majority and citing a recent survey that found 86 percent of its members oppose cloning.
It also said that accepting clones would render useless its use of DNA to track horses’ lineage, because clones would possess the same DNA as the original.
“Clones don’t have parents,” it said. “Cloning is not breeding.”
In 2006, a Texas company called ViaGen impregnated a mare with a cloned embryo produced from the DNA of Royal Blue Boon, an animal that earned its owner hundreds of thousands of dollars in competition. NBC affiliate KFOR covered the story at the time.
Researchers clone animals by transplanting the genetic information from a cell in a donor animal — either dead or alive — into an unfertilized egg cell whose genetic information has been destroyed or physically removed. In the case of horses, that egg is then implanted into a surrogate mare, where — if everything goes smoothly — it develops into a viable foal.
Commercial cloning of farm animals like cattle and pigs is increasing, but questions remain about the technology.
The Roslyn Institute of Edinburgh, Scotland, which created the world’s first cloned animal — Dolly the sheep — in 1996, “no longer undertakes research related to cloning of animals” and notes that some physical abnormalities have been observed in clones.
“Cloned animals have, in some cases, displayed growth defects although exactly why is not known,” it says on its website. “The growth defects are probably a result of the in-vitro culture conditions and due to changes in chromatin in the nucleus, but further research would be required to fully understand this.”
But the potential for defects isn’t what riles many quarter horse breeders and owners about the lawsuit, which seeks damages and an injunction that would prevent the AQHA from barring clones from the official breed registry.
A former AQHA president made “intimidating remarks and references to the immorality of cloning” and vowed that the “AQHA will allow cloning over my dead body” at a meeting of the organization last year, according to the complaint.
‘An uneducated voice’
Veneklasen, who is both a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a veterinarian who has participated in the cloning of many horses, argues that a few influential AQHA members have swayed opinion against the technology and kept a proposal to drop the cloning ban from being considered.
“The loud voice is an uneducated voice and an opinionated voice,” he said. “And four or five voices are all that people are getting to hear.”
Veneklasen argues cloning would strengthen the quarter horse breed by re-introducing genetics from past champions who are deceased or otherwise unable to breed, possibly because they were gelded before reaching their prime. He also said it could help reduce diseases prevalent in quarter horses by enabling breeders to “silence detrimental genes.”
But many opponents within the AQHA say it would have the opposite effect.
“From a breeder’s standpoint … we try to continually further improvement of the American quarter horse through selective breeding: Pick the best sire, match him to the best mare to produce the best foal,” said Micah McKinney, an AQHA member who operates Reliance Ranches in Llano, Texas. “I think that copying what already has been done would be going backward in the progression toward a better breed.”
Art Caplan, head of the medical ethics division at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and an NBC News contributor, said opponents like McKinney are right to be concerned, but are unlikely to prevail in what he described as an “ethically complex” case.