Day At The Track

Racing success linked to Intelligence Genes

07:15 AM 22 Apr 2019 NZST
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A genetic study of Norwegian-Swedish Coldblooded Trotter harness racehorses revealed eight major genes likely related to their success on the track, some of which drive the horses’ abilities to learn and remember.

Success on the trot tracks isn’t all about brawn. There’s quite a bit of brain in there, as well.

Sure, a harness race winner needs to be fast. But he’s also got to adjust to—and even anticipate—his driver’s demands, navigate around other horses and their sulkies, and, most importantly, not break into gallop even when trotting at high speeds. And there are genes for that—ones that code for intelligence.

New genome-wide studies on harness racehorses revealed eight major genes that appear to be related to their success on the track. While most of those genes are related to physical fitness and ability, some drive the ability to learn and remember.

“Trotting on a racetrack is not a particularly natural act for the horse compared to how its wild ancestors were moving,” said Gabriella Lindgren, MSc, PhD, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics. “These horses need to be able to adapt to the handling and interaction with humans, the environment, and also trotting on the racetrack.”

Fellow researcher Eric Strand, PhD, of the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, in Oslo, agreed. “Most good performance horses not only trust their handlers, but they are smart and learn to adapt to the situations they are placed in,” he said.

In their study, the researchers analyzed DNA from 613 Norwegian-Swedish Coldblooded Trotters (NSCT) to look for SNPs (sections of genes) that consistently appeared to be associated with the horses’ performance (wins, earnings, speed, and disqualifications due to breaking into gallop during a race). They chose this breed instead of the Standardbred because it has a small population, making it easier to control for other influences, they said.

They identified more than 30 SNPs that appeared to have strong or possible roles in harness racing success, the research team reported. They narrowed the search to eight genes that showed a strong correlation with performance.

Among those genes were four with clear physical implications and two with links to intelligence, learning, and memory:

  • ATPase copper transporting beta (ATP7B): Helps get copper out of cells, potentially reducing muscle stiffness;
  • Phosphatidylinositol-4-phosphate 5-kinase type 1 beta (PIP5K1B): Might affect neuron development and oxidative stress;
  • Phosphodiesterase 3A (PDE3A): Plays a role in cardiovascular function;
  • Inositol polyphosphate-5-phosphatase D (INPP5D) & SRY-box 5 (SOX5): Involved in embryonic development and immune responses;
  • Potassium channel regulator (KCNRG): Manages potassium movement in cells, possibly related to learning ability and exercise tolerance; and
  • Dedicator of cytokinesis 8 (DOCK8): Influences intelligence and motor skills, probably including the ability to maintain a gait.

Investigating NSCT genes might reveal the significance of the genes coding for mental capacities, they said, as they don’t trot at high speeds as naturally as Standardbreds do. And this might require them to have even more concentration, learning, intelligence, and memory.

“NSCTs race in trot, which is not their natural gait when moving at high speeds,” said contributing researcher Kim Jäderkvist Fegraeus, PhD, also of SLU. “Standardbreds, on the other hand, have been selected for harness racing performance for a longer time and do not appear to have the same level of problems with their racing technique when first introduced to training compared with NSCTs. As a result, it is possible that there is a genetic factor influencing how fast some NSCTs learn technique, which ultimately would be correlated with how well and how fast they start their racing career.”

For Strand, the mental capacities “maximize the performance potential,” he said. “The NSCT breed includes many individuals which are overly stressed at times and burn unnecessary energy by pulling hard on the bit and reins during racing. This then prevents them from allocating their physiological resources during a race. The current study was able to capture these horses, along with the superior ‘smarter’ horses, which have learned to cope and optimize their physiologic capabilities in front of large audiences.”

Brandon Velie, BSc, MSc, PhD, contributing researcher from SLU, added “The current study is just another step in better understanding what makes a horse successful in sport/competition. In this case, we were looking at trotting performance; however, as most equestrians/horsemen would tell you, a similar case can be made for all equine athletic competitions: To be successful, a horse needs not only the right physiology, but also the right mentality.”

The harness racing industry in Norway and Sweden welcomes genomics research in their field and views it as a useful tool for enhancing horse performance as well as welfare, he added.

“Our recommendations at this time would be to keep working closely with researchers as a continued partnership between industry and academia,” he said. “This is the key to applied research, which can truly have a positive impact on a breed and industry.”

The study, “A genome-wide association study for harness racing success in the Norwegian-Swedish coldblooded trotter reveals genes for learning and energy metabolism,” was published in BMC Genetics.

Reprinted with permission of The Horse

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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