In 2013 a piece of incisor tooth from Phar Lap, whose skeleton is housed in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, was sent to Australia as the source material in an attempt to sequence the horse’s DNA.

DNA will be extracted from the dissolved tooth at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide and analysed and sequenced at the University of Sydney.

Phar Lap’s genetic make-up

In a press release from the University of Sydney, Dr Natasha Hamilton, the team leader from the University’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, said, “We are doing this out of scientific curiosity and all our data will be made publicly available. The DNA sequence will tell us if Phar Lap’s genetic make-up looks like star racehorses of today, including whether he is a sprinter or a stayer [genetically better suited to running long distances].”

Extracting enough viable DNA

However, the researchers are likely to have a tough time extracting enough viable DNA. The skeleton was treated by being boiled in a corrosive solution to help with its preservation. The researchers are hoping that enough DNA has been preserved in the tooth – teeth are often the best source of DNA in historic artefacts.

“There is a possibility that we will not be able to get much usable DNA as they were obviously not thinking about the possibility of future DNA extraction when they prepared Phar Lap’s skeleton in the 1930s,” says Professor Alan Cooper, ACAD Director.

Professor Claire Wade, also from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science and in charge of the genetic analysis, says that, despite this limitation, current whole genome sequencing methods can work with small pieces of DNA, so the researchers are hopeful they will be able to generate usable information.

No possibility of cloning

The fragmentation of the DNA also means it would not be usable in other projects that require large amounts of good-quality DNA such as cloning.

“So, sorry punters, there is no hope of Phar Lap II running around a few years from now,” says Dr Hamilton.

DNA analysis of racehorses in Europe

The researchers say that no other southern hemisphere racehorses have had their whole genome sequenced before. “By contrast, in Europe, this research is quite popular, and DNA analysis has been performed on notable horses such as Eclipse, racing’s first superstar and an ancestor of 95% of today’s thoroughbreds, and Hyperion, a popular sire from the 1930–50s who is found in numerous pedigrees,” says Professor Wade.

As Phar Lap was a gelding, he did not sire any offspring.

The sequenced genome will be used in the University of Sydney’s current research programme to understand the basis of genetic diversity in different breeds of horses, the structure of the thoroughbred breed and the genetics underlying the physiology of exercise across all horse species.

Phar Lap’s racing career

Phar Lap, born near Timaru in 1926, won 37 of 51 races over a variety of distances between 1000–3600 m, including the Melbourne Cup in 1930, in a 4-year racing career. Considered an icon in both Australia and New Zealand, Phar Lap’s heart rests in Canberra, his hide is in Melbourne and his skeleton is in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. In 1932, Phar Lap died in mysterious circumstances in America where he had been taken to race. Synchrotron analysis of his mane hair in 2006 and 2008 showed the horse had ingested a large amount of arsenic hours prior to his death.

    Published 2 September 2013