Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Clone me a pony.

By now you have heard about the Korean group who successfully cloned lines of embryonic stem cells with nuclei from individuals with injuries or diseases. There is plenty of debate on the subject (John Rennie provides a nice review of some opinions), and President Bush has stood fast on his anti-cloning position:
"I worry about a world in which cloning becomes acceptable. Secondly, I made my position very clear on embryonic stem cells. I'm a strong supporter of adult stem cell research, of course. But I made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money to promote science which destroys life in order to save life is -- I'm against that. And therefore, if the bill does that, I will veto it."
There have also been new developments in equine cloning. The Jockey Club, which regulates thoroughbred racing in North America, will not allow artificial insemination, let alone cloning. You can read all of the rules here. The Jockey Club is against cloning for different reasons that the Bush administration, but none of it is based in solid science. Dan Rosenberg, president of the farm that breeds Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones said:
"Part of the intrigue, part of what makes horse racing so appealing is the challenge and the art of breeding a better animal. It will become less appealing if it comes down to which owners and breeders can hire the best scientists. Do we really want races that pit 10 Secretariats against each other?"
His argument assumes:
  1. Geneticists will be able to identify alleles that make horses win races;
  2. Geneticists will be able to engineer horses that have winning genotypes;
  3. And a horse's racing success is mostly due to genetic factors (as opposed to environment, the jockey, or dumb luck).
Until there is concrete evidence that breeders that use cloning or genetic manipulation have an unfair advantage over traditional breeders, there is no reason to disallow cloning. Besides, breeding by selecting for winning horses is a form of genetic engineering (albeit primitive) that may or may not lead to success (I don't have the statistics and I'm too lazy to look them up). This is an issue of an old guard establishment protecting its traditional methods from modern scientific advances. Much like Bush's position on stem cell research and cloning is based on faith and religious doctrine, the horse racing community is adhering to its traditions without understanding the science behind racing performance.

Don't fear the end of equine cloning just because the Jockey Club does not allow it -- Olympic jumping horses can still compete even if they are clones.


At 10:05 AM, Blogger coturnix said...

All Thoroughbreds are descendants of just three stallions (Darley Arabian, Byerly Turk and Godolphin Arabian) and a couple of dozen mares - for the past 200+ years of inbreeding. They are all practically clones already. Sure, the existing genes reshuffle all the time and tere is certainly a genetic component to the racing ability, but it is much more dependent on traits of behavior and temperament than physical conformation and muscle-composition. This also means that environment: from intra-uterine, through the foal cohort, to training to jockey, are much more likely to determine the outcome of any given race than genes.

Anyway, I would love to see a race between 10 Secretariats! It would not be a 10-wise photo-finish dead heat, for sure. It would be very instructive, too, as we could see what made a particular Secretariat win and another one trail behind by ten lengths.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger RPM said...

Thanks for the comment coturnix. My exposure to horse racing comes from highlights on SportsCenter. I'm a sports fan (not a racing fan), so I tend to catch the triple crown races and nothing else. It always seemed to me, though, that a good trainer and jockey were more important than a good bloodline. Now that I hear how closely related all thoroughbreds are, I wonder if it's really worth it to pay high stud fees for a winning horse.


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