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Genetics hold the key to racetrack performance


Zoe Satherley
21 January 2010
The racehorse breeding industry in Australia and overseas is set to benefit from genetic research being undertaken by a team of scientists from Southern Cross University.

The research pioneers a new understanding of the genetic makeup of high performance thoroughbred horses, with the outcomes also having application to human athletic performance.

The research aims to determine the relationship between the genetic makeup of elite racing horses and their performance.

Researchers hope it will help breeders, owners and trainers better identify potential elite horses for racing at specific distances, and in specific types of races, and enable them to better understand the value of using genetic markers and other performance indicators in racehorse selection.

Associate Professor Allan Davie, who has studied racehorses for over 20 years, is heading the research team, comprised of SCU staff Professor Shi Zhou and Dr Toni Pacey, in collaboration with researchers in China led by Professors Yong Zhang and Li Wen, from Tianjin University of Sport and Professor Bin Liu, from the Beijing Institute of Genomics.

The team has just been awarded a highly competitive Australia-China International Science Linkages research grant of almost $100,000 from the Australian Government and 120,000 Chinese yuan from the Chinese Government, for their project titled ‘An investigation on the Polymorphisms of mitochondrial DNA in relation to racing performance in thoroughbred horses’. The team is among 14 winners from 81 submissions selected by both countries.

“It is well established that a high level of aerobic power (maximum oxygen consumption) provides the physiological foundation for elite racing performance in both humans and horses,” Professor Davie said.

“Large differences exist within species in relation to this maximum oxygen consumption and its response to training. Maximum oxygen consumption is influenced by the mitochondria found within individual cells.

“Mitochondrial density and function regulate aerobic power. Therefore, the genotype of mitochondria – the genetic history – is one of the key factors that determine muscle utilisation of oxygen and aerobic performance.

“The current understanding is that mitochondrial DNA is the only genetic material outside the nucleic DNA that is transferred exclusively from mother to offspring in mammals.

“Tianjin University of Sport, together with the Beijing Institute of Genomics, has already been doing research on mitochondrial function in relation to exercise performance and health in humans.

“Having them now involved in this research on horses with SCU scientists is a wonderful and exciting opportunity for us to learn more about this frontier area of equine genetics.

“The horse racing industry is a billion dollar industry impacting on the Australian economy. There were more than 11,000 breeders registered who were responsible for 18,000 foalings in the year 2000.

“So, finding a more effective way of selecting and training potential elite performers based on genetic markers is on the agenda of breeders and scientists. This project will place the researchers and their institutions at the frontier in this area of research.”

Associate Professor Davie said the overall aim of the study was to discover the potential link between genotype variation of mitochondrial DNA and a horse’s athletic ability – measured by its race performances and money it has earned.

“Mitochondria carry the metabolic pathways for cellular respiration, therefore their function should correlate closely to aerobic performance as well as metabolic diseases,” Professor Davie said.

“It is hypothesised that elite race (aerobic) performance can be linked to the traits of mitochondrial DNA, and that these traits are inherited from the mother, or dam.”

Associate Professor Allan Davie’s research at Southern Cross University, which has led up to the winning of this prestigious research grant, has for the past four years been supported by Kent racing stables in Melbourne.

Photo: Associate Professor Allan Davie with Rain Dance Lover, a horse on which he has done genetic research, at Ballina Racecourse.