Of the older domestic horse breeds that remain in the Nordic countries, all but the Icelandic horse and the Finnish horse are assessed to be endangered to varying degrees. These include the Swedish breeds North Swedish horse, Gotland pony, Swedish Ardennes and Cold-blooded trotters. A three-year Norwegian-Swedish research project started 2022 with the aim to increase the knowledge about the genetic variation that exists within and between Nordic horse breeds at DNA level. The goal is to be able to give advice on sustainable breeding of the breeds for the future.
The focus will be on Norwegian and Swedish horse breeds. In the project, DNA in blood samples will be analyzed with so-called whole genome sequencing of up to 30 individuals per breed. This means that the entire genetic code is read for these individuals. For comparison, we already have complete genome sequence data for groups of horses within several breeds. With the help of this DNA reading, we will be able to see how similar the genomes are within and between breeds.
We will also look for places in the genome where the horses show less variation. It can provide information on how genetic adaptations to the local environment and areas of use have affected horses throughout history. Inbreeding can also be seen in the DNA code in that the horses have inherited similar variants from the mother and father to a greater extent, ie have an increased degree of homozygosity in the genome.
Knowledge of genetic mutations that affect traits such as fertility, or that cause genetic defects, is constantly increasing. By whole genome sequencing horses, we also have the opportunity to investigate the presence of such mutations in the breeds.
The project is funded by The Swedish-Norwegian Foundation for Equine Research together with Norwegian research funders. It will be run in collaboration between the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), NordGen, which is a Nordic knowledge center for genetic resources, and the Norwegian Horse Center (NHS).
To be useful, the knowledge also needs to be communicated and the plan is for the results to form the basis for updated information to racial associations. Through NordGen's network for Nordic horse breeds and contacts with Swedish Trotting and the Swedish horse breeding association (Svenska Hästavelsförbundet), we hope to be able to have good communication with relevant breed associations and breeding organizations.