THE CLONED FOAL — Italian scientists announced yesterday that they have created the first cloned horse, raising the possibility that breeders might someday churn out genetic duplicates of champion equines, while heartbroken owners will be able to bring beloved old mounts back to life.
The cloned foal - dubbed Prometea - was born May 28 at the Laboratory of Reproductive Technology in Cremona. A Haflinger with a splash of white down its nose, the horse already weighs more than 220 pounds.
"She's great and growing up fast," said Cesare Galli, the laboratory director and head of the cloning team.
The technology's impact on the multibillion-dollar world of horse racing and breeding remains to be seen. Some breeding associations and sponsors of equestrian events have said they will allow cloning. But the thoroughbred industry prohibits horses conceived through artificial reproduction. "This is light-years away from having impact on thoroughbreds," said Dr. Thomas Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.
Even so, scientists described the announcement as a significant breakthrough. They said the ability to create genetically identical horses will make it easier to study equine disease, and possibly to revive endangered species such as the African wild ass and Przewalski's horse of Mongolia.
Prometea, whose birth is described in the current issue of Nature, is the second member of the equine family to be cloned. In May, researchers at the University of Idaho cloned a mule, a cross between a horse and a donkey.
To create the horse clone, the Italian team started with skin cells from a male Arabian and a female Haflinger, a sturdy, sure-footed Tyrolean breed. They removed the nucleus, which houses the DNA, from each of the cells. They then fused the nuclei with hollowed-out eggs collected from a slaughterhouse.
Of the 841 reconstructed embryos, 17 were introduced into nine mares, resulting in four pregnancies. Only Prometea, named for the Greek god who gave mankind fire, survived the experiment.
The birth was a double first. Not only was Prometea a clone, but she was also born of the same Haflinger mare that had provided her DNA. Scientists said this challenged a widely held theory that a clone could not be successfully carried by its own genetic twin.
Breeders were divided yesterday on how to deal with possibility of carbon-copy champions.
The Arabian Horse Association said this week that it will allow clones. But many other groups are opposed.
The American Quarter Horse Association and the powerful Jockey Club, which oversees thoroughbred horses in the United States, have voted to bar cloned animals from their stud books, a move that effectively bans them from racing.
One concern is that cloning could drastically reduce the fees breeders command for their studs, some of which get as much as $100,000 for impregnating a mare.
"Horses are just like art: The original is always going to be worth a lot more money than a print," says Ray S. Little, co-owner of Raylyn Farms in Frederick, which breeds Dutch Warmbloods.
Another fear is that cloning could lead to the dominance of a single bloodline and reduce genetic diversity. That, in turn, could dampen enthusiasm for a sport in which the only competitors were clones of champions.
'10 Seattle Slews'?
"How much fun would it be to watch Muhammad Ali box Muhammad Ali? Or 10 Seattle Slews in a race?" said Dan Rosenberg, president of Three Chimneys Farm in Lexington, Ky., home to the 1977 Triple Crown winner until Seattle Slew's death last year.
Cloning, Rosenberg said, could reduce the chances that genetic underdogs such as Seabiscuit could emerge from anonymity. "History is full of horses who were given little chance and who became major influences on the breed," he said.
Some organizations object to cloning on ethical grounds. Since Dolly the sheep was born in 1996 in Scotland, numerous cloned mice, cattle, goats, rabbits, cats and pigs have shown signs of serious birth defects or developmental problems.
As a result, the American Morgan Horse Association has said it will wait until cloning is deemed safe before allowing cloned Morgans to be registered.
Equines appear to tolerate cloning well, according to veterinarian Gordon Woods of the University of Idaho. Last month, a team led by Woods delivered its third cloned mule. "These guys are so healthy, they're boring," he said of the mules.
Valuable for geldings
Katrin Hinrichs, a Texas A&M; veterinarian who heads another horse-cloning project, said the technique might prove valuable for geldings, male horses that have been castrated for medical or behavioral reasons and can no longer reproduce.
Hinrichs, whose group is awaiting the birth of a cloned quarter horse in November, said that without the technology, a gelding such as Funny Cide, winner of this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness, will never be able to contribute its genes to the breed.
She and other scientists are also starting to get phone calls from horse owners interested in cloning their favorites. But the big question on the minds of many horse enthusiasts is this: Even if it were possible to field 10 genetic duplicates of Secretariats, what would the result be?
Bob Curran, spokesman for the Jockey Club, said genes are just part of the formula that makes a great champion. It also takes the right diet, the right trainer and the right rider.
"And that's impossible to duplicate, unless you start cloning jockeys, too," he said.