Morris Animal Foundation has awarded a three-year, $155,000 grant to a team of researchers from Kentucky and Denmark to build a new reference genome sequence for the domestic horse. The sequence will be a much needed tool for animal researchers worldwide and the equine industry in particular because it will significantly improve the ability to understand the role of genetics in animal health and well-being.
Ted Kalbfleisch of the University of Louisville department of biochemistry and molecular biology, is the principal investigator on the grant. He will be joined in the research with Ludovic Orlando of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the National History Museum at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and James MacLeod of the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky.
Genome sequencing allows researchers to read and decipher genetic information found in DNA and is especially important in mapping disease genes — discovering the diseases a horse might be genetically predisposed to developing.
"In 2009, Morris Animal Foundation helped fund the first genome reference sequence for the domestic horse," Kalbfleisch said. "We intend to build on this earlier work. In the past five years, there have been dramatic improvements in sequencing technology as well as the computational hardware and algorithms required to analyze the data generated by the technology. Therefore, we now have the tools necessary to vastly improve the reference genome for the horse."
The current reference genome for the horse, known as "EquCab2," has been beneficial in studying horses and their genetic predisposition to disease, but it is not without its shortcomings, Kalbfleisch said.
"The horse research community is working to understand the relationship among genomic structure, variation found within it and complex diseases and traits in the domestic horse," he said. "The EquCab2 reference genome was developed prior to the development of today's highly sophisticated technology.
"With the application of new high-throughput technologies we have available today, we will map the genome with a focus on what is known as the 'GC-rich regulatory regions.'"
These GC-rich regulatory regions control how genes are expressed (turned on) in order to participate in normal cellular processes. This work will enable scientists to better catalog genetic variation in these regions and understand how it affects health and performance.
"We expect our research to have substantial impact because the horse research community has actively moved to the translational application of genomics in examining important questions in equine science," Kalbfleisch said. "The improved reference genome we will map will directly improve both the quality and productivity of research being carried out in the equine industry."