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Nutrigenomics: By Maurine L. Webb T

Enhancing Equine Health for the Modern Sport Horse

he common adage, “you are what you eat,” might soon be rephrased into something like, “tell us who you are and we’ll tell you what to eat.” Welcome to the

new world of nutri-what? Nutrigenomics. It’s become one of the latest buzz words in human health. Major educational institutions such as the University of California Davis have dedicated vast resources to research the scientific relation- ships between food and health, diet and genetics, with the goal to use a person’s genetic makeup to prevent disease and improve overall health. It’s an interesting concept and it now reaches beyond

human wellness into the animal kingdom. Research giant Alltech, based in Lexington, Kentucky, has made significant progress in equine nutrigenomics, sometimes called equine nutritional genomics. Scientists investigate how the foods (i.e. grains, grass and hay) that our horses eat interact with their genes to affect their health. “Nutrigenomics is not genetics and it does not involve ge-

netic engineering. What we are doing with carefully selected nutrients is fine-tuning the motor that is already there,” ex- plains Ronan Power, Ph.D., Alltech vice president and director of the company’s Center for Nutrigenomics. Is it possible that as owners and/or breeders of sport horses, these new devel- opments will open up more possibilities for our studs and steeds to perform higher than they do now?

Early Research The first part of scientific research involved the sequencing of the horse genome, which was completed in 2007 with the final report published in late 2009. In modern molecular biology and genetics, a genome is the entirety of an organ- ism’s hereditary information. Basically, it is the very thing that makes a horse a particular horse. The first sequencing was done from the tissue of a Thoroughbred mare, Twilight, be- cause Thoroughbreds have a very narrow blood line as their genes can be easily traced back to their ancestors. Nineteen other breeds were then chosen for testing, to allow scientists to map their genetic differences, called polymorphisms. The project was based at the University of Kentucky, but was a collaboration of over 100 scientists from 20 countries. The equine genome is made up of 20,322 genes. Gene expression (the process of how a gene works within

a cell) begins when a particular segment of the DNA is copied into the RNA using an enzyme, in a process called tran- scription. (DNA and RNA are both nucleic acids found in the cells of every living organism.) This informa- tion is then translated into proteins and provides

scientists with a basis to study the biological activity of a feed or supplement component. These studies are carried out us- ing gene chips or DNA microarrays. “Gene chips are small tools that allow researchers to pro-

file tens of thousands of genes in one experiment and get a rapid snap shot of an animal’s response at a molecular level,” says Kristen M. Brennan, Ph.D., senior research scientist at Alltech. “In the case of nutrition, this snapshot gives research information as to how a horse responds to different dietary components or strategies on a molecular level. By piecing this information together, we can learn how an animal re- sponds to a nutrient and why.” “Gene expression is tightly regulated, so responses to changes in nutrition can be rapid. I like to tell people to think about gene expression like a radio—you turn the radio on to get the message across when needed. If you need to have a lot of people hear it, you can turn it up really loud and if you don’t you can turn it down really soft. Gene expression is the same way. Not only can cells regulate if a gene is turned on or off [transcrip- tion] but also how much or little of that signal is pro- duced [up or down regula- tion],” she explains. The next step is to take all

this information and come to a meaningful conclusion. The gene changes are grouped together by their biological function and scientists then study how these groups influence each other. Computers and analytical software are necessary to process and analyze the large volume of information.

Nutrigenomics uses DNA mi- cro-array technology that has been used for over a decade. It is capable of profiling gene expression patterns of tens of thousands of genes in a single experiment.

Benefits to the Horse “Practical applications of nutrigenomics are the ability to rapidly replicate nutrients in the diet for their potential to improve or enhance animal health and production efficiency,” Dr. Power explains, adding that Alltech‘s work in nutrigenom- ics has shown the vital role that antioxidants, particularly Vitamin E and selenium, play in maintaining a healthy im- mune system. Their first feed supplement was launched in June of 2008 called EconomasE. It improved antioxidant per- formance, thereby enabling traditional vitamin supplement levels to be reduced.

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