Has a witch ever stolen a piece of your hair and used it to put a hex on you? Probably not. Today, such superstitions seem silly -- at least until you examine what you can accomplish with a lock of hair. You can place a suspect at the scene of a crime or find out what your employees' favorite illegal drugs are. In fact, thanks to advancements in DNA research, one little strand of hair can clue you in to an organism's entire biological blueprint.
Across the world, scientists are using this knowledge to study diseases, revive extinct animal species and potentially help couples with fertility problems. And while all this is well and good, it's not really in keeping with the scheming of storybook wizards and mad scientists. How's an enterprising villain supposed to profit from any of this?
A successful cloning procedure would give you a genetic double of the target, minus the subject's accumulated memories and learned responses. Therefore, you couldn't very well steal a hair from Donald Trump and instantly produce a clone who could fork over access to his bank accounts. To make your fast, underhanded fortune in the cloning business, you'd need to find an established, high-paying market for genetic material. Look no farther than professional horseracing.
There's an enormous amount of money to be made in breeding the next Triple Crown winner. Take 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus for example. The racing stallion sold for a record $60 million following his win, and his genetic material is about as top-shelf as it gets. His stud fee is currently $150,000. Fusaichi himself is the son of $20 million Mr. Prospector, whose stud fee reached as high as $500,000 a pop [source: Forbes Magazine].
That's some pretty expensive semen. But what if you could cut out the middlemen? By stealing a few hairs from a horse like Fusaichi Pegasus, couldn't you do one better and simply produce the champion's exact genetic double?
Read the next page to find out.
They clone horses, don't they?
Before you put too much time and money into planning your big horsehair heist, there are a few issues worth considering. First, not every horse sired by a champion grows up to win a derby or two. Even with a clone, which would have one genetic parent instead of two, other factors besides genes go into making a champion. A great deal of a horse's success depends on its surroundings and individual training program.
However, if you successfully cloned a champion stud such as Fusaichi Pegasus, you'd potentially have quite a valuable horse on your hands. With the right training and a little bit of luck, you might even have a steed capable of pulling off a major win. Another card in your favor is the fact that humans have already successfully cloned horses.
In 2003, Italy's Laboratory of Reproductive Technology created the world's first successful horse clone, named Prometea, by fusing a skin cell from an adult mare with an empty egg. This process is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. However, while the resulting foal was born healthy, she was also the culmination of 328 attempts to construct and implant an embryo [source: BBC News].
In 2005, the same scientists successfully cloned racing champion Pieraz. While the embryo success rate improved from 3 percent to 15 percent between the two cloning instances, the technique is still costly and continues to draw criticism based on the number of embryo deaths involved in the procedure [source: New Scientist].
But even if you managed to successfully create a clone from a handful of ill-gotten hairs, you'd still have another obstacle in your path: the professional horse racing establishment. As you might imagine, Prometea's birth sparked considerable discussion in the horseracing world. Enthusiasts and breeders alike pondered a future where widespread cloning might lead to races populated entirely by genetically identical clones.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider the spread of the muscle ailment hyperkalemic periodic paralysis (HYPP). While the debilitating and potentially fatal condition is widespread among pedigreed quarter horses today, researchers have traced the genetic defect back to a single champion stallion named Impressive [source: UC Davis]. The documented lineages of many racehorses go back three centuries and, along the way, breeders have encouraged the best racing traits -- sometimes at the expense of genetic diversity. Some breeders fear that cloning would only further shrink the gene pool, sucking excitement out of the sport and profit out of the breeding industry.
For this reason, organizations such as North America's Jockey Club and the British Horseracing Board permit only natural breeding methods. This means no artificial insemination, and certainly no cloning. Even if you could successfully clone your thoroughbred racehorse, you'd come up against a brick wall the second you were asked to supply DNA proof of natural breeding. This would also prevent you from cashing in on the horse's stud potential.
We currently possess the technology to clone a a champion racehorse using just a few hairs and a lot of patience. Ensuring the clone is its parent's equal and proving it on the track is much less certain.
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More Great Links
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- Zabek, Tomasz et al. "Implications for the use of horse hair roots as a DNA source of microsatellite typing." Czech Journal of Animal Science. 2005. (July 30, 2008)http://www.cazv.cz/attachments/CJAS_50_499-502.pdf