Not only can Thoroughbreds provide hours of entertainment for racing enthusiasts, they could also play an invaluable role in understanding obesity and Type 2 diabetes in humans, reports a group of Irish researchers.
"Over the past 400 years, the fastest and strongest racehorses have been selected for, resulting in the elite athletic animals we see today," said lead researcher Emmeline Hill, PhD, of the Animal Genomics Laboratory at University College Dublin, Ireland.
While many Thoroughbred fans are satisfied to simply watch these athletes perform, Hill and colleagues wanted to examine these highly selected animals at the genetic level to see which genes were the targets of this selection.
"Although the physical and physiological adaptations contributing to the athleticism in Thoroughbreds are well-described, such as a large lung volume, high cardiac output, and large muscle mass to body weight ratio, the genes contributing to this athleticism have not yet been identified," explained Hill.
"By comparing genetic data from Thoroughbred and non-Thoroughbred populations we have been able to identify various regions in the Thoroughbred genome that exhibit 'signatures of selection,'" she added.
Specifically, within these regions researchers identified an overabundance of genes involved in insulin signaling, fat metabolism, and muscle strength.
"In addition to potentially being able to impact selection decisions in Thoroughbred breeding, this information could be invaluable to human researchers," said Hill.
Hill explained that as a result of studying the Thoroughbred genes, researchers could better understand how exercise may assist in combating the growing obesity epidemic among human populations and diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.
"The Thoroughbred could emerge as a new large animal model for humans," concluded Hill.
The study, "A genome scan for positive selection in Thoroughbred horses," was published in the June 2009 edition of the journal PLoS One and is available free on PubMed.
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