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Posted 21 January 2010

UCD Spin out company launches genetic test for ‘speed gene’ in thoroughbred horses

A breakthrough genetic test that can identify the optimum racing distance for individual Thoroughbred horses has been launched by Equinome, a new University College Dublin biotech company. The identification of ‘The Speed Gene’ is the first known characterisation of a gene contributing to a specific athletic trait in Thoroughbred horses, and has the potential to transform decision-making processes in the global bloodstock industry.

The Thoroughbred horse racing and breeding industry is an international, multi-billion euro business, with more than 100,000 foals born each year. Using the Equinome Speed Gene test racehorse owners and trainers around the world will be able to identify if a horse is ideally suited to racing over short, middle or middle-to-long distances. With this information, they can then optimise their purchasing and training decisions and better target suitable races for their horses. Breeders, stallion managers and bloodstock agents will also be able to use the test to make more precise selection and breeding decisions to maximise the genetic potential and commercial value of their horses.

Pictured far right: Dr Emmeline Hill, co-founder of Equinome

Equinome headquartered at NovaUCD, the Innovation and Technology Transfer Centre at University College Dublin, will formally launch the test during the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association (ITBA) Expo 2010. The Expo takes place at Goffs, Kill, County Kildare from 29th – 30th January.

The development of the Equinome Speed Gene test is a result of research led by Dr Emmeline Hill, a leading horse genomics researcher at the UCD School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine. The research, funded by Science Foundation Ireland, was the first academic programme in the world to apply novel genomics technologies to identify genetic contributions to racing performance in Thoroughbred horses.

Following the success of the research programme, Dr Hill and Mr Jim Bolger, the renowned Irish racehorse trainer and breeder, co-founded Equinome in 2009 to commercialise the test.

The scientific data supporting the Equinome Speed Gene is published in a scientific paper entitled A sequence polymorphism in MSTN predicts sprinting ability and racing stamina in Thoroughbred horses in the open access on-line Public Library of Science Journal, PLoS ONE.

“Breeding techniques for Thoroughbred horses have remained relatively unchanged for centuries,” says Dr Emmeline Hill. “Breeders currently rely on combining successful bloodlines together, hoping that the resulting foal will contain that winning combination of genes. Until now, whether those winning genes have or have not been inherited could only be surmised by observing the racing and breeding success of a horse over an extended period of years after its birth.”

According to Dr Hill, using the Equinome Speed Gene test, a world first in equine genetics, it will now be possible to definitively know a horse’s genetic type within weeks of a sample being taken, thus reducing much of the uncertainty that has been typically involved in selection, training and breeding decisions.

"The introduction of genetic know-how to breeding will dramatically change the face of the bloodstock industry,” says John O'Connor, Managing Director, Ballylinch Stud, County Kilkenny. “We have begun and intend to continue to utilise this highly valuable tool to fine-tune decision making in our operation. This will fundamentally change the way we will have to think about breeding in the future."


Equinome, a new Irish biotech company, was established in 2009 as a result of groundbreaking research led by company co-founder, Dr Emmeline Hill, and in partnership with racehorse trainer Mr Jim Bolger.Equinome’s ongoing research and development activities continue to support collaborations between world-class science and elite racehorse breeding and training, with facilities established at UCD’s School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine and at Jim Bolger’s training yard in County Kilkenny, Ireland. Through this research Equinome is continuing to drive the cutting-edge of equine performance genomics. Equinome was the overall winner of NovaUCD’s 2009 Campus Company Development Programme which assists academic entrepreneurs in bringing their innovative ideas from intellectual concepts to fully-developed and sound commercial business enterprises.

Dr Emmeline Hill hails from a Co. Wexford family synonymous with horse racing and breeding in Ireland. Her grandmother was Charmian Hill, the owner of Dawn Run, the only racehorse to have completed the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle (1984) and Gold Cup (1986) double. She joined UCD in 2002 as a post-doctoral researcher. In 2004 she became a UCD Principal Investigator when she was awarded a Science Foundation Ireland President of Ireland Young Researcher Award. Dr Hill maintains strong industry links with horse breeding and training operations in Ireland and internationally and is a member of the International Horse Genome Mapping Group and the International Horse Genome Sequencing Consortium.  She graduated in 1995 with a BA (Genetics) from Trinity College Dublin and a PhD in Molecular Genetics in 2000.

NovaUCD is University College Dublin’s Innovation and Technology Transfer Centre.  NovaUCD is responsible for the commercialisation of intellectual property arising from UCD research and for the development of co-operation with the industry and business communities. NovaUCD as a purpose-built incubation centre also nurtures new technology and knowledge-intensive enterprises. Twenty-four knowledge-intensive companies, including Equinome, are currently located in NovaUCD.  NovaUCD has been funded through a unique public-private partnership that includes AIB Bank, Arthur Cox, Deloitte, Enterprise Ireland, Ericsson, Goodbody Stockbrokers, UCD and Xilinx.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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Dr Emmeline Hill, co-founder of Equinome