It's in the Genes
New online course explores horse genetics
BY ANDREW VOWLES
She's ridden horses, written about horses and learned about horse genes. Now Alicia Skelding, a U of G graduate student and Equine Guelph employee, is helping to teach a new online equine genetics course this semester that she assembled last fall more or less from scratch.
“Equine Genetics” is a new online course being offered through the Office of Open Learning. It's an elective for U of G's equine science certificate and a required course for the equine studies diploma, both distance education programs developed by Equine Guelph.
The 12-week course — intended for horse breeders and owners, equine enthusiasts and riders — covers aspects of horse genetics, including coat colours, parentage testing, medical genetics, performance traits, pedigrees and breeding.
The course was announced in the fall and quickly reached its enrolment target of 60 students, with another 20 on the waiting list by mid-December.
Skelding says interest in horse genetics is growing, especially since researchers completed sequencing of the equine genome in 2007.
“It's an emerging field,” says Skelding, who researched and wrote much of the course curriculum around part-time jobs as a receptionist at Equine Guelph and an assistant at a veterinary clinic in Rockwood. “I've always had a keen interest in genetics, and it's exciting to follow the application of genetic knowledge in the equine industry.”
She completed a B.Sc. in animal science in 2007 and will defend her master's thesis in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science this month. She's teaching the new course with Gayle Ecker, senior manager of Equine Guelph.
“Alicia has done a great job of taking a complex course and developing the material for the horse owner,” says Ecker.
Knowing more about the horse genome is important for tracking down genes involved in disease and performance traits, says Skelding. She says researchers know far less about horse genetics than about the genetics of other farm animals such as cattle and swine.
For her master's degree, she looked for variants within three cattle genes involved in resistance or susceptibility to mastitis and Johne's disease, both serious afflictions in ruminants. She found no genetic correlation for mastitis, but she did connect one gene variant with host response to the bacterium that causes Johne's disease, a chronic gut inflammation in dairy cattle.
Both studies will likely be published sometime this year, says her supervisor, Prof. Niel Karrow, who adds that the work might provide targets for drug therapy.
Skelding is thinking about pursuing a doctorate in the genetics of equine laminitis, an acute inflammation that can cause lameness in horses. She encountered the disease during summer volunteer work with equine veterinarians as an undergraduate.
She has ridden hunter/jumpers on and off since childhood and has been involved with the U of G Equestrian Club.