Friday, July 19, 2013

Clone Wars

Nope, not these guys...

...THESE guys!

5 clones of Smart Little Lena

The horse-cloning debate is heating up again. Two Texas horse breeders are suing AQHA over the organization's refusal to register clones. Although the breeders are asking for $6 million in "damages," this case isn't really about money. Since it costs almost $200,000 to clone a horse, and both have cloned many, they obviously aren't hurting for cash. No, this case is about forcing AQHA to change its rules... and the tactic has worked in the past.

When embryo transfer was a new technology, AQHA refused to register more than one foal per mare per year. After a big lawsuit, the organization backed off, and now mares can be "moms," if only genetically, to registrable foals many times per year. Will the same thing happen with cloning? Why should we even care?

We should care because cloning may contribute to destroying the last vestige of integrity in breeds.
And no, I'm not referencing some weird theory about messing with genes. It's not the science of cloning I'm worried about.

Anti-vaccine poster, 1800s
I know that cloning as a science isn't perfect yet, but neither were vaccines when we invented them. They got more effective, despite those who said vaccines were an abomination unto God and would kill us all, etc etc. Today, we depend on them to keep us healthy and safe, which in turn keeps our society more stable. We've gone through the same process of fear/acceptance with bathing, electricity, women being able to vote, and hell, even microwave ovens! (At one point the media was scaring us with ideas about microwaves causing cancer and destroying vitamins in food.) No, it's not cloning itself that's the problem, it's the lack of responsibility of the humans who will use it.

Remember my "Where Are We Going?" post? I talked about how the horse world is breeding more and more for fashion, not function. We're picking horses who have HYPP or super-dished faces or tiny feet, and making LOTS more of them. Technology has only increased that trend. Things like embryo transfers and artificial insemination already allow people to breed ten thousand offspring from one currently-popular stallion over his lifetime. But what if we used cloning to make three copies of the same stallion? We could breed forty thousand offspring from him!

Just think of what might have happened if cloning had been around before Impressive died. There might not be a stock horse in the world today unaffected by HYPP!

I'm not saying there aren't legitimate uses for cloning. There are. I feel particularly sympathetic to owners of awesome geldings who could never have their beloved horse's foal without cloning. I also think that, used properly, cloning could help us disseminate good genes more widely, improving breeds everywhere.

However, I don't trust humans to limit themselves to the best uses of cloning. If we can't even breed responsibly with the current technology available, why will things be any different with cloning? If cloning becomes slightly more affordable, and organizations start to register those clones, I foresee a future where there is so little genetic diversity and soundness left in our horses, we will have to import primitive foreign stock and start all over again.

I hope AQHA remains strong against registering clones, but I fear they will not. They always have been an organization that cares more about big bucks than ethics. The Jockey Club can be relied on to stand strong (they still don't even allow AI) but the Thoroughbred industry simply isn't as influential as it once was, especially here in America. Finally, with Olympic officials declaring last year that horse clones will be eligible to compete in the Games, there is even more incentive to clone.

There is some hope in slowing down the race to clone, however. That hope lies in the science of cloning itself, which we are slowly discovering to be less reliable than we thought-- in a good way.

These two cats are Rainbow and CC ("copy cat"). CC is Rainbow's daughter... and also her clone. Yet they do not look or act alike. Rainbow was a calico, with lots of orange, and during her life she was a rather aloof cat. CC's fur contains no orange, and she is a cuddle-bug. If you look back to the first picture on this post, the five Little Lena clones are also very different than they first appear. Some are taller, the one on the far left has very turned-out legs, and of course none of them have the same markings.

It turns out that while cloning can copy genes, it can't always make sure those genes are expressed in the same way. Some genes "turn on or off" randomly during an organism's growth. In addition, we now know that a mother's placenta, the mother's environment, the baby's environment in utero and of course upbringing can play a huge role in determining what an animal looks and acts like. Because cloning is so new, we have had little chance to compare the athletic performance of cloned horses to their "originals," but I suspect there will be vast differences.

We tend to think of the cloning process as a rubber stamp that produces the same thing, over and over. But in fact, cloning may be more like a book read out loud by two different people: the words are the same, but there is such a difference in tone, emphasis, accent and enunciation, each person's recital is like a whole different story. If this is the case, cloning may become passe before it can do any harm or good in the horse world. Who would want to spend so much money on such an unsure outcome?

Want to Read More?

Read more about Rainbow and CC here.
One of the breeders suing AQHA is Gregg Veneklasen... read more about him here.
A bit more about horse cloning here.
Here's "The Horse Cloning Conundrum" and "From Sapphire to Saphir," the story of one champion jumping gelding cloned by his owner.

Sapphire (right) and his clone Saphir (left). Saphir is currently 3 years old.


  1. The first clone of Lena to the far left not only has turned out legs.. but WTF is up with the markings?? I mean what is on its legs, fur, fur missing.. or something really wierd.

    My husband and I watched a big sale on RDTV about 2 years ago. Mostly selling ranch or reining/cutting stock..
    What I thought was interesting is that they sold a mare with her clone and the foal at her side.. And that a mare and clone have to be sold together.

  2. I believe the markings on the legs are sabino markings-- so white splashes. The sabino gene can "hide" pretty well, and that's one reason AQHA changed its White Rule-- they figured out that even pure QHs can carry paint genes. Here's a close-up pic of a different horse with sabino leg markings:

  3. It is most likly the "marking" are left over poltice mud put on the legs to help with the bad leg conformation. If it helps or not I do not know but it is done all the time on TB farms.