Centre for Genetic Improvement of Livestock 
Update 2000

The French Connection

Ian Lang



A Canadian horse's link to its French counterparts may provide a genetic safety net for the future

Anouk Behara is using molecular genetics to compare the amount of genetic variation within rare and common horse breeds



If a "genetic emergency" arises in native Canadian horse breeds, a University of Guelph researcher is helping the industry be ready.

Industrialization has left regional and national breeds -- including three distinctly Canadian breeds -- out of the spotlight and potentially threatened with extinction, says researcher Anouk Behara. This leaves horse enthusiasts concerned about inbreeding and limited genetic variability within these groups. So along with Prof. John Gibson, Centre for the Genetic Improvement of Livestock, and Dave Colling, Maxxam Equitest Inc., she's used DNA technology to investigate the genetic backgrounds of Canadian horse breeds and track down some of their distant ancestors...in case they ever need a quick dose of genetic variability.

A Thorough Investigation

Behara's research began as an investigation into a few of Canada's horse breeds: the cheval Canadien (also known as 'Canadian'), and two ponies, the Newfoundland, a sturdy, all- purpose breed, and the Lac LaCroix, used originally for riding by some aboriginal Canadians. The cheval Canadien dwindled in numbers to about 400 in the 1970's before making a comeback to roughly 3,000 today. And, only meager populations of the Newfoundland (200) and Lac LaCroix (32) exist currently. As genetic variation decreases, it becomes increasingly likely that heritable diseases will increase within the population.

By looking at DNA samples from these horses and comparing their variability to those of 11 common North American breeds such as the Quarterhorse and the Thoroughbred, Behara found that the cheval Canadien and the Newfoundland have healthy and acceptable levels of genetic variation. The Lac LaCroix pony, however, seems to have a more limited genetic basis, although inbreeding is not yet a major concern.

If a problem ever does arise, Behara has proposed a strategy: find the breeds that are most closely related to the endangered group, minimize the genetic severity of the combination, and hopefully make as small a physical change in the new generation as possible.

Minimizing The Threat of Extinction

To this end, Behara compared the DNA of cheval Canadien to those of other breeds, including horses of both North American and European descent. She discovered that a French breed, the Trotteur Francais is its closest relative. One North American breed - the Morgan - also stood out as a close cousin of the cheval. Although the cheval is currently thriving on its own, these two related breeds seem to be the best choice for cross-breeding purposes, if a "genetic emergency" should ever arise.

Behara says her techniques are easily transferable to any breed facing the threat of extinction.

"Nothing about the general research methods is specific to horses," says Behara. "Rare breeds of cattle, pigs, poultry, even wild species may be able to benefit from this model."

This research was sponsored by the Equine Research Centre with data provided by Maxxam Equitest Inc and Dr. J.C. Meriaux from the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, France.