With the first horse cloned in 2003, the genetic science behind breeding horses continues to progress.
Thanks to the cooperative effort of an American zoo, conservation agencies, and geneticists, a decades-long project to clone a Przewalski horse has cause to celebrate.
Kurt, an adorable cloned Przewalski foal, was born on August 6th in Texas.
His birth is another scientific breakthrough for genetic science. It has also become quite a hot topic in the equine breeding world.
With horse value and stud fees that can reach the millions, what will the ability to clone equines do to the species as a whole?
The Science Behind Cloning a Horse
The San Diego Zoo, with the wildlife conservation group, Revive and Restore, and ViaGen Equine have been working to this goal for longer than I have been alive.
Kuporovic, the Przewalski horse that Kurt was cloned from, lived between 1975 – 1998.
He was chosen in 1980 for this project, thanks to his strong genetic makeup. His genetic material was stored in the San Diego Frozen Zoo forty years ago.
Using the magic of science, an embryo was created that would be viable for insertion into a surrogate horse’s womb.
Thanks to an incredible amount of hard work, the pregnancy and birth were as uneventful as a cloned foal in utero could be, and baby Kurt joined the world.
Why Do They Want to Clone a Przewalski Horse?
The wild Przewalski horse breed is not one that many have heard of, likely because they are almost all gone.
Breed numbers started to decline after WWII, partly due to overhunting and lack of territory. Native to Central Asia, the last horse sighting in the wild was documented in 1969.
With all of the remaining 2,000 Przewalkski horses having the same twelve ancestors, the long-term health and longevity for this breed are very much in question.
Without the genetic diversity that naturally occurs in healthy breed populations, it is likely that the remaining herd will not be strong enough to thrive.
With the addition of an entirely “new” genetic makeup for the breed to their population, the potential to maintain breed health is much higher.
Hopefully, when little Kurt reaches his peak breeding age in five to ten years, scientists will be able to document that potential.
Continuing the conservation effort in the future of a fifty-plus year project will be a remarkable task.
How Could Cloning Impact Rare Horse Breeds?
With the glaring reality that humans have had a pretty terrible impact on the other species of this planet, there is much to be said for the ability to “fix” the situation.
The San Diego Global Frozen Zoo has over 10,000 living cell cultures of irreplaceable living cell lines.
With a mission that is driven by “conservation, assisted reproduction, evolutionary biology, and wildlife medicine” they have the potential to make a huge impact in the world.
Working to use genetic and reproductive technology, endangered horse breeds on the brink of extinction, like the Przewalski horse, can have the opportunity to survive.
Potential scenarios, similar to the wide-sweeping wildfires of Australia in 2019, that can decimate native animal populations could have disastrous consequences for a species.
The ability to revive affected breeds or species could become a fantastic way to rejuvenate and rehabilitate an animal population.
Should we Clone Horses?
That said, just because we can clone horses and other animals, does that mean we should?
There are many horse breeds that no longer exist. The question that comes to my mind is how much interference in the survival of a breed of a species is acceptable?
There are many extinct horse breeds such as the Ferghana, a Chinese war-horse, the Old English Black, a massive ancestor of the Clydesdales and Shires, or the Turkoman, an ancestor of the noble Thoroughbred.
These breeds were truly remarkable in their times and prized for their various strengths.
However, as evolution tends to do, over the years they were bred with other horses and the bloodlines were lost.
The sciences of evolution and genetics, combined with an incredible history of fiercely guarded and sought-after breeder selections all come to a clash on this topic.
Stud owners for centuries have worked with the premise that performance, conformation, and temperament are what need to be tracked to breed strong foals.
When talking to a top breeder, if you say, “But sir, that one is more genetically pure.” you will likely hear the answer “But this one has the traits you are looking for today.”
How do we dispute that? Should we?
The Future of Horse Cloning
Kurt will live at San Diego Zoo Safari Park with the rest of the herd there. His legacy in the equine world will always remain. Hopefully, his genetic imprint will always continue on in these rare horses.
The optimist in me wishes all of the best to the scientists with their noble missions. The cynic worries about the natures of opportunists that may taint the science with greed.
Only time will tell if our jump into the future of breeding will stay true. In the meantime, Kurt really is an adorable little guy. Mazeltov.