HN Equine Research Challenge: Finding the Genes That Influence Equine Metabolic Syndrome

Imagine if we could identify horses at risk for developing equine metabolic syndrome long before symptoms develop — that’s the goal for a study by Dr. Molly McCue and Dr. Jim Mickelson. Learn more and lend your support!

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We’re proudly introducing the projects participating in our first-ever equine research crowdfunding challenge with! To learn more about why we sponsored this crowdfunding challenge, click here.

We all know that keeping our equine partners at a healthy body weight is important, though some horses struggle more with this than others. Ponies are particularly well known for getting “fat on air”. Unfortunately, obesity can often mean more than just a little extra chub for horses. For many horses, obesity is associated with equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), laminitis, and founder – all of which can be life-threatening conditions. And as you might expect, the predisposition for obesity has a genetic component in addition to an environmental one. So how can we protect our equine partners from the risks associated with obesity? And how can we help horses who tend to the fluffier side stay healthy?

Dr. Molly McCue and Dr. Jim Mickelson at the University of Minnesota (the U, for all you golden gophers out there) are exploring the genetics of obesity in horses and how these genes affect metabolism. Their goal is to get a better understanding of how EMS develops, find new treatments for EMS, and be able to identify horses that are at-risk for developing EMS before it ever happens. They are running a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of sequencing the genes expressed in fat and muscle samples from 96 horses, which will add a key component to their larger research program.

This component of their larger study (you can read more about the larger study here) is specifically looking at the differences in gene expression between muscle and fat tissue of horses with EMS vs. horses without EMS. By doing so, the team hopes to identify factors that directly lead to some of the symptoms observed in horses who have EMS – such as the regional adiposity, or increased fat storage in the liver which can lead to insulin resistance.

Of course, it’s not an easy “one and done” type of study. Thousands of genes control the behavior of fat and muscle tissue, and Dr. McCue and Dr. Mickelson think that possibly hundreds of genes control the sequence of events that differentiates horses who are merely “chubby” from those with EMS. Each of these genes likely contributes a very small amount – 2% here, 10% there – to the chances that a given individual develops EMS. And to find out how these genes relate to one another, they’ll need to process hundreds of samples.

After identifying some of the important genes that contribute to EMS, the team hopes to develop a genetic test that will allow owners to understand the risk their horse has of developing EMS. Like current genetic tests like PSSM1, this will help owners make important care decisions about their horses. However, since EMS has a more complicated genetic makeup than PSSM1 (PSSM1 appears to be controlled by a single gene mutation), the results of the genetic test won’t necessarily indicate that a specific horse will or won’t develop EMS.  But even knowing that a horse has a 25% increased chance of developing EMS will help owners pick feed and pasture strategies that can improve horse health.

To do this, though, Dr. McCue and Dr. Mickelson need to raise about $10,000 to cover the costs of this aspect of their genetics study – which is currently not covered by their university or grants. You can support their effort on their campaign! Backers will be kept up to date on research and testing results, and will play an important role in helping us learn more about Equine Metabolic Syndrome.

The takeaways:

  • Equine metabolic syndrome is a condition caused by the interaction of many genes
  • They are focusing on genes that regulate muscle and fat metabolism
  • Each of these genes contributes a small amount of risk to the development of the syndrome, and through their collective effects cause the symptoms of EMS
  • Researchers are working to develop genetic tests to identify EMS risk among obese horses
  • You can help by supporting Molly McCue and Jim Mickelson’s Experiment campaign!

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