Scientists in Idaho and Utah are taking their carbon copy equines to the track.

Credit: University of Idaho/Bill Loftus ©2006.

The mule-racing circuit in California and Nevada will trot into the 21st century this June when two “selectively bred” mules take to the track. Idaho Gem and Idaho Star, as the mules are known, are the world’s first clones created from an equine species. Having made it to their third year of life, they are finally ready to race other mules and one another.

“To see [Idaho Gem or Idaho Star] win a race would be almost on par with seeing one of my grandchildren do well in an athletic competition,” said Gordon Woods, a physiologist at the University of Idaho who led the mule-cloning project.

The enterprise, a combined effort between Woods’ team and a group at Utah State University, was inspired and partly funded by Don Jacklin, the president of the American Mule Racing Association. Jacklin wanted to race clones culled from the same gene pool as his favorite mule, Taz, a 2003 world champion.

“[Jacklin] suggested that we enter the cloning race, to be the first in the world to clone a member of the horse family,” said Woods. “Because he’s a mule guy, he said, ‘By the way, it needs to be a mule.’”

Idaho Gem and Idaho Star are the first successful embryos cloned from a fetus conceived several years ago by Taz’s parents. Gem and Star both showed early promise as racers, and were separated at two years of age and placed in the care of different trainers.

Woods said that, owing to their genetic similarity, races between the two had the potential to be a competition between different training methods. Gem and Star aren’t identical, however,  and can be told apart by their mannerisms as well as differences in size and shape. Moreover, despite the clones’ vaunted lineage, victories during racing season, which kicks off the first weekend in June at Winnemucca, NV, are not guaranteed.

“We know they have the genetic capability to be great,” Don Jacklin told BBC News. “We don’t know if they are going to have…the attitude to want to run and want to compete and want to win.”

In what may be an indication of increased public acceptance of the procedure, Woods said his mules have so far eluded the ethical clamor that surrounded the cloning in 1997 of Dolly the sheep. His primary concern is that the animals are healthy enough to withstand the intense physical stress of racing. The issue of tampering with nature does not bother Woods, who comes from a long line of horse breeders.

“This is just a more refined manipulation,” he said, comparing his cloning efforts to animal husbandry.

Racing is only part of the mule plan for the University of Idaho group. The researchers have formed a private cancer research company called CancEr2, through which they will monitor the role of calcium in regulating cell activity in cloned mules and eventually horses, who rarely get cancer.

Originally published May 24, 2006


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