BY LAUREN MAULDIN
For a long time, the subject of cloning was restricted to science fiction novels. Ever since Dolly the sheep, the first successfully cloned mammal, was born in 1996 clones have been slowly getting closer to our every day life. Now over twenty years later, the animal genetic experts at ViaGen offer clones even closer to home – in our barns, and in the show ring.
Founded in Austin, Texas in 2002, ViaGen has developed thousands of healthy, active cloned animals for clients across the United States and abroad. Through careful partnerships and acquisitions, the company has teamed up with leading experts around the world. In 2003, ViaGen acquired ProLinia which doubled their cloning capacity as well as provided rights to technology developed by the Roslin Institute of Edinburgh, Scotland, the same team that cloned Dolly the sheep. Later the company teamed with and was eventually acquired by Trans Ova Genetics, turning the partnership into a worldwide leader in bovine Assisted Reproductive Technologies. Originally offering cloning for horses, cattle and pigs, ViaGen next added pet services for dog and cats, officially bringing the reality of cloning into our living rooms.
Cloning, a process of intricate science and pristine, sterile laboratories, might seem about as far removed from the reality of a working horse barn as actual unicorns, but the ViaGen team not only understands the practical value that a clone can bring a barn – they embody it. President Blake Russell stands his own stallion, Pure Tailor Fit, a clone of AQHA racing champion, Tailor Fit, with over a million in career earnings. “The original Tailor Fit has already demonstrated the elite ability of this genetic package to perform. We are now interested in passing these elite genetics to future generations of equine athletes,” Russell said.
For many, cloning is not about duplicating an individual animal, but rather re-creating their genes for reproduction. The process mixes science and the art of breeding, and can offer a kind of insurance to stallion owners. If a popular stud were to be unexpectedly put out of commission, a clone can keep his genes in circulation. Of course there is also the scenario where a gelding unexpectedly grows up to be a performance champion. In that case, cloning opens up breeding opportunities that otherwise would have never been available.
Russell’s cloning endeavor worked for his breeding program. “Pure Tailor Fit has matured into a beautiful and athletic stallion and is now in the breeding barn. His foals demonstrate the outstanding conformation and mentality that we were expecting from this elite genetic line,” Russell said of the stud. It’s not an individual success story though, the company prides itself on the health of their clones. “Every cloned foal is veterinary inspected to ensure its health, and is genetically verified by an accredited 3rd party to confirm a genetic match to the donor,” Russell added. ViaGen’s excellent customer service and health of their animals has proved reliable for a variety of their clients – including ones in the hunter/jumper circuit.
Perhaps the most famous equestrian clone of one of the most famous jumpers in our sport was done by ViaGen. Gemini, the genetically identical clone of famed show jumper, Gem Twist, was born at ViaGen in 2008. Owned by the Chapots, the stallion stands in the Anglo European studbook with fresh semen available throughout Europe and frozen shipped worldwide. Between the primary interest in breeding and 2012, four years after Gemini’s birth, being the year FEI decided clones would be allowed to compete, the stallion was never trained for the jumper ring. His offspring however, are starting to hit competitions throughout Europe and show the distinctly familiar pricked ears and stellar jumping ability that Gem Twist fans will immediately recognize. Nibali Van Het Eikenhof, a 2013 stallion out of a Belgian Warmblood mare, has been shown in stallion shows in Europe and stands at Gestüt Sprehe in Benstrup, Germany.
A bit closer to home, ViaGen cloned another star of the hunter/jumper ring… although this one was much smaller! Rainbow Connection, National Green Small Pony Hunter Champion, champion at elite shows all over the east coast in the 90’s, and named one of the winningest small ponies in USEF history, was cloned with ViaGen’s services in 2009. Rainbow Too, the cloned foal, was shown on the line at Devon. Like FEI, the USHJA has no rules against showing clones in competition, making it possible for ponies like Rainbow Too to try and re-create their genetic twin’s success.
Be it an interest in cloning for performance in the show ring or longevity in the breeding shed, ViaGen has made the process easy for owners. The first step is having a veterinarian take a small tissue biopsy of the animal, which is sent to ViaGen. The company then cultures new, living cells from the sample, and freezes those cells for genetic preservation. When the owner decides it’s time to clone, ViaGen begins with the preserved cells. “We take one of the cells and replace the nucleus of a female’s egg. After treatment by our patented process, the egg and cell join together and the embryo starts to grow.” Once the embryo has developed, it is placed into a surrogate mare – a process that’s becoming increasingly popular for performance mares still in the ring. Clones experience a typical gestation period, and are born genetically unchanged from the source animal.
Cloning can even be possible with animals postmortem, which is important since tragic accidents are an unfortunate occurrence with horses. In these situations, if an unfrozen tissue sample is kept cool and delivered to ViaGen within five days of the animal’s death, cloning is possible. Keeping the sample close to 4ºC and delivering quickly increase the chances of having cloneable cells, although ViaGen advises that the best way to assure a successful genetic preservation is to get a tissue sample from a live animal.
With horses, a big question regarding cloning is how similar the clone will be to the original. Will it tackle jumps with the same tenacity? Trot as well as its genetic twin? Those questions are hard to answer. Training, environment and care constitute so much in the creation of a successful sport horse that it’s hard to say that genes alone create a champion. Clones may also have slight variations in their coat color and markings, similar to the way that identical human twins have different freckles. The animals have the same genes, but the genes may be expressed differently – especially when it comes to markings on horses.
Some time ago, cloning might have been a science far removed from the equestrian world, but companies like ViaGen have put the technology well within our grasp. Show rules within the hunter/jumper world welcome clones, and if Gemini’s offspring in Europe is any indication, sporthorse breeders are excited about the prospect of owning the offspring of a champion once thought to be impossible. Cloning is officially no longer science fiction. It’s an equestrian reality that’s just a quick tissue sample away.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
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