The horse has been a means of transport, equine companion and friend to man since time began. With good horsemanship and a managed diet horses have thrived, yet are still susceptible to a range of common conditions and ailments.
However, with the advent of the new sciences of genomics and nutrigenomics, the way of feeding and managing equine nutrition could be about to change forever.
In April 2003 the world saw the announcement of the successful completion of the Human Genome Project, a process of identifying and locating genes to create a genetic map of the human body. Following this breakthrough came work on the equine genome - consisting of 20,322 genes with 2.7 million of the building blocks of the horse’s DNA successfully mapped – the results of which became available in 2009. Whilst the equine genome project was based in Kentucky USA, it was an international collaborative project involving over 100 scientists from 20 countries.
The genome, the genetic material that is the makeup of a person or animal, includes not just the DNA but also other complex genetic material. 99.9% of DNA in a specific genome is identical, but it is the remaining 0.1% that can result in very big differences being observed between individuals, and which has important implications on health and performance.
The equine health and animal feed industry is currently working towards commercialisation of gene-specific feeds, nutritional supplements and nutraceuticals.
Nutrigenomics: Science or Fairy tale?
One of the most significant advancements is the development of a patented DNA microarray known as an ‘Equine GeneChip’, which is a wafer thin quartz chip manufactured from a biological sample taken from a horse.
Only able to be used once, the cost of a single ‘GeneChip’ varies between $200 and $400 USD, depending on its complexity. However, the cost is expected to fall further with a number of companies working on the development of a plastic variant.
Read by high speed scanners connected to powerful computers and specific genetic software, this allow scientists to undertake literally thousands of experiments simultaneously! From these software programs researchers can interpret how gene change impacts on other genes and overall health. It is like building a puzzle, each individual piece is important and means something, but it’s not until it is all put together that it gives a picture of what is happening.
It is like building a puzzle, each individual piece is important and means something, but it’s not until it is all put together that it gives a picture of what is happening.
From this technology, the new sciences of genomics and nutrigenomics have emerged. Nutrigenomics is the science of how the relationship between dietary nutrition and living tissue directly impacts health, disease status and performance.
By identifying individual genetic predispositions for chronic diseases and the potential for individual responses to naturally occurring dietary nutrients, or nutraceutical (synthesised nutrients) intervention, these diseases may be effectively prevented.
Nutrigenomics brings together the science of bioinformatics, nutrition, molecular biology, genomics, epidemiology, and molecular medicine.
Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, clinical studies have proceeded at a rapid pace into a range of chronic non-communicable diseases including Alzheimer’s, Type II diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease; and significant advances have been made. One example is Type II diabetes; genomic studies show there are 65 DNA sequence variations (known as SNP’s) associated with the risk of developing Type II diabetes.
With these advances, tests for the detection of SNP’s related to Type II diabetes have become available. In these tests, a clinical scientist is able to identify if a subject has a genetic predisposition to developing the disease. The costs associated with testing are significant, and at this point the science of nutrigenomics has not yet identified a specific nutrient/nutraceutical capable of switching off the genetic predisposition or preventing Type II diabetes. Similar advances are also being made with respect to Alzheimer’s, obesity, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
The science of nutrigenomics is opening up a whole new conversation for horse owners and equine nutritionists regarding diet, good health, behaviour and optimal athletic performance.
How does this relate to the horse, equine feeds and supplements?
Diet and nutrition both impact on a horse’s health and performance on a daily basis. Most horse owners have, at some time or another, included in the equine diet one or more supplements such as rosehip, garlic granules, dolomite, seaweed meal, green lipped muscle powder, bearberry leaves, slippery elm and a range of other herbs, nutrients and trace elements. These supplements have been included in feeds, either permanently or for limited periods of time, to achieve a range of different outcomes including improved coat and skin condition, immune response, digestion, hoof condition and prevention and reduction of joint inflammation and wear and tear.
Anecdotal evidence, and the belief of many horse owners, is that these supplements have benefits, but exactly how they work and why is yet to be determined scientifically for many products. These supplements contain a range of non specific trace elements, isoflavones antioxidants, and base nutrients, the science of nutrigenomics will identify and isolate the specific beneficial micro components of the supplements, identify the specific genes effected and the optimal dosage to achieve maximum benefit.
The science of nutrigenomics is opening up a whole new conversation for horse owners and equine nutritionists regarding diet, good health, behaviour and optimal athletic performance. This technology is where nutrition, health and performance coincide, and the equine health and animal feed industry is currently working towards optimising all of these areas with the commercialisation of gene-specific feeds, nutritional supplements and nutraceuticals.
Nutrigenomics offers the opportunity to improve equine behaviour, general health and immune response, minimise the risk of specific disease states, and assist with the optimisation of performance and general wellbeing and behaviour of horses.
“Nutrigenomics would make it possible to know what it is in the genes of a Thoroughbred horse that make it run faster, then the appropriate nutrients can be added to the horse’s feed to ‘ignite’ the genes that affect a horse’s speed.”
Alltech, a multinational Bioscience company operating in 128 countries, is a world leader in Crop Science and nutrition, and operates a world-leading nutrigenomic research centre that sponsors a wide range of research projects and trials globally. Founder and president, Pearse Lyons is quoted as saying “nutrigenomics would make it possible to know what it is in the genes of a Thoroughbred horse that make it run faster. Once that is known, the appropriate nutrients can be added to the horse’s feed to ‘ignite’ the genes that affect a horse’s speed.”
Extend this thought to equine health, behaviour and wellbeing and the possibilities are endless, as Alltech’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr Karl Dawson says “Feeding the gene is the way forward.”
Globally, scientists are investigating the genetic and nutrigenomic basis of a whole range of equine diseases, dispositions, behavioural and athletic performance issues. Currently, the University of Minnesota is studying the genetic basis of recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER) or ‘tying up’. The research has identified a specific gene related to the inherited form of RER. From this, research is continuing into the impact specific nutritional supplements can have on optimising outcomes for horses with this syndrome.
The Department of Animal Sciences – Cornell University (New York USA) - is currently conducting research identifying genetic differences (SNP’s) in equines that have genetic diseases, specifically Equine Metabilic Syndrome, Cushings Disease and the downstream causation of Laminitis. This is potentially very exciting because it should allow targeting of specific differences in genetics (ie SNP’s) and essentially personalised nutrition for equines. In Texas, researchers are using microarray Equine GeneChip technology to investigate ways to enhance mare and stallion fertility, and as such reproductive performance, and the use of selenium. It is known that selenium controls 10% of genes and is an important component of the equine’s antioxidant defence mechanism (boosting immune response), however selenium can be very toxic even in small doses, hence horse owners should partner closely with an equine nutritionist to prevent selenium toxicity.
The Gluck Equine Research Centre (Kentucky USA) has a number of genomic projects underway, including investigating the genetic signature of normal cartilage and equine Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The findings of this research may also lead to exciting developments for equine nutritionalists.
It is only a matter of time before further gene specific nutrients, or micro components of nutrients effecting gene expression and function, will be identified.
The future could be manufacturers developing mass-produced feeds containing either natural or synthesised nutrients targeting specific behavioural, disease, conditioning and performance management issues.
Gail Sramek, Marketing manager for Mitavite comments:
“Mitavite is constantly researching the latest scientific information in nutrition and believe there may be a role in nutrigenomics in feeding horses in the future.”
Results of work in the field of nutrigenomics will ultimately lead to feed manufacturers developing mass-produced feeds containing either natural or synthesised nutrients targeting specific behavioural, disease, conditioning and performance management issues.
Martin Connell from Hygain Feeds Pty Ltd comments:
“Hygain places high value in nutrigenomic research and product development and is working collaboratively on a number of equine nutrition projects.”
Similar to advances in medical technology for human health, there are and will continue to be, significant cost–benefit considerations with the commercial release of this technology and investments will have to be recuperated. However, as seen with human health, as the technology advances and product up-take increases, the cost of research is recouped and the cost to consumers of these new nutrigenomic equine feeds may fall.
Each horse is an individual, having unique behavioural and performance characteristics, therefore traditional horsemanship will always continue to drive the care and training of horses. The value of nurturing, training, environmental conditioning and individual care and attention given to horses will remain paramount to their well being and performance, as it has for centuries before.
It is only a matter of time before the companies and institutions driving the science of genomics and nutrigenomic research identify and isolate specific components of nutrients, or synthesise particular nutraceuticals, and bring them to the equine market place.
The sciences of genomics and nutrigenomics look promising in their ability to deliver many benefits to equines, and perhaps one day an affordable test will be developed where horse owners could take a swab from their horse’s cheek, send it away to be analysed, and receive an individual diet created to optimise their horse’s behaviour, health and performance!