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06-20-2024

Saving Przewalski's horse, the last surviving species of wild horse

In a remarkable study, researchers have successfully mapped the complete genome of the endangered Przewalski’s horse.

Once extinct in the wild, this species now boasts a population of around 2,000, thanks to dedicated conservation efforts.

Genome mapping

Genome mapping is the process of identifying the locations of genes and other significant features within an organism’s DNA. It involves creating a comprehensive blueprint of the genetic material, which includes all the DNA sequences and their specific positions on chromosomes.

This map helps scientists understand the structure, function, and organization of genes, enabling them to study genetic variations, mutations, and their implications.

Genome mapping is essential for identifying genes associated with diseases, understanding evolutionary relationships, and improving breeding programs for plants and animals. It provides a fundamental tool for advancing genetics, biotechnology, and medical research.

For example, the mapping of the horse genome, including breeds like the Thoroughbred, has helped identify genes linked to performance traits and health conditions, guiding selective breeding and veterinary care.

Collaborative achievement

The study was led by researchers from the University of Minnesota including Nicole Flack and Lauren Hughes from the College of Veterinary Medicine, along with Professor Christopher Faulk from the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.

The research features contributions from students enrolled in Professor Faulk’s animal science course.

“The genome is the basic blueprint for an animal and tells us what makes a species unique and also tells us about the health of a population,” said Faulk. “My students worked together to produce the highest quality Przewalski’s horse genome in the world.”

Importance of a reference genome

With the genome now mapped, researchers have a crucial tool to make accurate predictions about gene mutations and their implications for the health and conservation of Przewalski’s horses.

“Studying genes without a good reference is like doing a 3-billion-piece puzzle without the picture on the box. Przewalski’s horse researchers studying mutations in an important gene need a good reference picture to compare their puzzle with,” noted Flack.

Genome of Przewalski’s horse

The team used a blood sample from Varuschka, a 10-year-old Przewalski’s mare at the Minnesota Zoo, to create a representative genetic map for the species.

The Minnesota Zoo has been a long-time partner in Przewalski’s horse breeding and management, with over 50 foals born since the 1970s.

“We were excited to partner with the University of Minnesota to preserve the genetic health of the species as their populations continue to recover, both in zoos and in the wild,” said Anne Rivas, a doctor of veterinary medicine at the Minnesota Zoo.

“We are thrilled to offer our community the opportunity to see the horse as the results of our conservation efforts.”

Interestingly, the genome sequencing was performed using cutting-edge technology, involving a portable device about the size of a soda can. This portability allows for potential future studies of wild Przewalski’s horses in remote locations.

Promising applications of the reference genome

The newly mapped reference genome has several promising applications. It can be used to study genes that help the horse adapt to environmental changes, identify mutations associated with specific traits or diseases, and inform future breeding decisions to improve genetic diversity.

Given the extreme population bottleneck during the near-extinction of Przewalski’s horses, understanding their genetic makeup is crucial for continued breeding and conservation efforts.

Interesting facts about Przewalski’s horse

Przewalski’s horse, the last surviving species of wild horse, has a distinct ancient lineage. After being declared extinct in the wild in the 1960s, successful reintroduction efforts have restored populations in Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan.

These horses are genetically unique, possessing 66 chromosomes – two more than domestic horses. They are smaller in stature, standing about 4 to 4.5 feet tall and weighing between 550 and 800 pounds.

Przewalski’s horses live in small family groups with one dominant stallion and several mares. Their diet primarily consists of grasses, but they also eat leaves, bark, and fruit. They are tough survivors, capable of enduring extreme temperatures from scorching summers to freezing winters.

These horses have a distinctive appearance with a stocky build, short legs, a thick neck, and a standing mane without a forelock.

Przewalski’s horses hold cultural significance for the Mongolian people as a symbol of their natural heritage and are seen as a conservation icon, representing hope for other endangered species.

The study is published in the journal G3 Genes|Genomes|Genetics.

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