Horse cloned at Texas veterinary hospital may help save his species

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TIMBER CREEK CANYON, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — A cloned Texas horse named Kurt, born with genetic material from another horse that was cryopreserved for 40 years, has the potential to save what is thought to be the last truly wild breed, the Przewalski’s horse.

Przewalski’s horses are thought to be distant cousins of the domestic horse and once ran free in Europe and Asia before changes in the environment and competition with man and livestock led to their decline, according to the National Zoo. The wild horses have a distinct zebra-like mane that stands erect, along with stripes below their knees and a dark, plumed tail.

“(Kurt’s) hair is different. His tail is different, his hooves are way different. That hoofile capsule is a lot different than these little foals. It’s really thick,” said Dr. Gregg Veneklasen Timber Creek Veterinarian Hospital. “I’ve not been to Mongolia, but, obviously, this design is from hundreds of thousands of years, of doing something at someplace, and it’s probably a great design from where they’re from.”

Przewalski’s horses were nearly extinct in the early 1900s. About 12 horses were bred over time, creating around 2,000 Prezwalski’s horses that are now in existence.

However, there is only one Kurt.

Kurt is an exact genetic twin of his father, Kuporovic, who lived for many years at the San Diego Zoo.

The zoo froze his genetic material, making Kurt possible, 40-years later.

“I’ve done this a long time,” Dr. Veneklasen said, “I’ve been around lots and lots of horses. I’ve never been around anything like this.”

Since Kurt’s genetic material comes from an entirely different source than the 12 horses which saved the breed from extinction, he will help his species avoid a genetic bottleneck when inbreeding starts to cause health and reproductive issues with the animals.

Jason Abraham, who provided the surrogate horse said, “Even though epigenetics kicks in he’s going to act a little different than the original, his offsprings will be just like out of the original because the DNA he’s passing on is the exact thing.”

Kurt’s personality is one of the things that Revive & Restore Lead Scientist Ben Novak says shows he’s a success.

“He’s a bit of a bonehead. He’s head butting. He’s nipping. He’s really rambunctious – and that is exactly what we want out of Przewalski’s horse, we want him to be wild.” Novak said. “We want him to have wild offspring. And you know, that bodes really well for him as well as the future of cloning for endangered species.”

This scientific achievement may open the door to other conservation and restoration possibilities as well.

Blake Russell who is the President of ViaGen Animal and Equine said, “How do we embrace proven technology to help us bring these conservation steps forward? Because, again, the solutions aren’t necessarily in our history. Um, they might be in our present and again, building into our future.”

Kurt’s future, however, is more certain.

“The world will be able to go to the San Diego Zoo and see Kurt. But what’s special about what he’ll be doing at the San Diego Zoo is he’ll be in a herd of other Prezwalski’s horses where he will eventually breed and have sons and daughters and those sons and daughters will be some of the most genetically diverse Przewalski’s horses in the world. And eventually, we hope that his son’s daughters, grandsons, etc end up being distributed throughout other zoos, spreading his genetics and eventually get returned to the wild in Mongolia and China to join those herds and help bring those genetics to those herds as well,” Novak said.

The San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo continues its work to save other species. You can read more about it here.

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