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Phar Lap’s DNA to be sequenced

The tiny piece of one of Phar Lap's teeth from which scientists hope to extract the horse's DNA.

The tiny piece of one of Phar Lap’s teeth from which scientists hope to extract the horse’s DNA.

Legendary New Zealand thoroughbred Phar Lap is the latest equine to have his DNA sequenced.

A team from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science has taken on the project, and will use a 60mg piece of the great horse’s tooth to unravel his genetics.

Standing proud: Phar Lap strikes a classic racehorse pose in this image from the early 1930s.

Standing proud: Phar Lap strikes a classic pose in this image from the early 1930s. Put right: Phar Lap's skeleton in March 2013. Put right: Phar Lap’s skeleton in March 2013.
Phar Lap's skeleton at Te Papa before its re-articulation. Phar Lap’s skeleton at Te Papa before its re-articulation.

Even though he died in 1932, Phar Lap still has the power to make headlines. Before this latest project in his DNA sequencing, the Red Terror from the Antipodies was in the news in late 2010, when his skeleton made the trip from its home at New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa, to be reunited with his hide in Melbourne for the 150th running of the Melbourne Cup.

His skeleton made the trip safely back home in early 2011 but the biggest news surrounding the movement was the decision to re-articulate the skeleton to have Phar Lap in a more natural pose. The task was completed in March, 2012.

In the latest thrilling development for fans of the horse, the DNA extraction from Phar Lap’s tooth will be performed at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), at the University of Adelaide, before being analysed at the University of Sydney.

“We are doing this out of scientific curiosity and all our data will be made publicly available,” team leader Dr Natasha Hamilton.

“We’re creating a DNA sequence which we hope can be used for different studies comparing the DNA from different breeds. We’d also like to compare Phar Lap’s sequence with other elite performers from the modern era.

“The DNA sequence will tell us if Phar Lap’s genetic make-up looks like star racehorses of today, including whether he is a sprinter or a stayer (genetically better suited to running long distances),” Dr Hamilton said.

“We believe that no other southern hemisphere racehorses have had their whole genome sequenced before. By contrast, in Europe this research is quite popular and DNA analysis has been performed on notable horses such as Eclipse, racing’s first superstar and an ancestor of 95 percent of today’s thoroughbreds, and Hyperion, a popular sire from the 1930-50s who is found in numerous pedigrees.”

Dr Hamilton said the DNA sequencing would also help shed light on the genetic diversity of thoroughbreds around the world, past and present. “What is it that, genetically, makes a thoroughbred different to other breeds?”

It will also highlight how modern thoroughbreds have changed or how they have lasted the test of time, she said.

“Horse are athletes, so they’re great models for studying exercise physiology.”

Lead researcher Dr Natasha Hamilton: "We are doing this out of scientific curiosity and all our data will be made publicly available."

Lead researcher Dr Natasha Hamilton: “We are doing this out of scientific curiosity and all our data will be made publicly available.”

Professor Claire Wade, also from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, will be in charge of the genetic analysis.

The information will be used in current Faculty of Veterinary Science research such as international studies to understand the basis of genetic diversity in different breeds of horses, the structure of the thoroughbred breed and the genetics underlying the physiology of exercise across all horse species.

The skeleton was treated by being boiled in a corrosive solution which will have fragmented the DNA.

“There is a possibility that we will not be able to get much usable DNA, as they were obviously not thinking about the possibility of future DNA extraction when they prepared Phar Lap’s skeleton in the 1930s,” said Professor Alan Cooper, ACAD Director.

Professor Claire Wade said that despite this limitation, current whole genome sequencing methods can work with small pieces of DNA, so the researchers are hopeful they will be able to generate usable information.

The fragmentation of the DNA also means it would not be usable in other projects that require large amounts of good quality DNA such as cloning.

“So, sorry punters, there is no hope of Phar Lap II running around a few years from now,” Dr Hamilton said.

Phar Lap's skeleton in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Phar Lap’s skeleton in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. © Michael Hall

 

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