UCD Scientists Hill & Katz Secure SFI Funding

2nd November 2020

Posted In: The Topic

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD has announced a total investment of €53 million in 71 projects under the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Frontiers for the Future Programme.

University College Dublin (UCD) has been awarded just under €8 million for a total of 14 projects through this SFI programme. Among those funded are UCD scientists, Professor Emmeline Hill, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science and Professor Lisa Katz, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine.

They have been awarded over €880,000 for a five-year research project to investigate the dynamic interplay that exists between the inherited DNA sequence of a horse and the environment.

During this project the UCD research team will use sophisticated genomics and computational technologies to evaluate how the early life environment of the foal, weanling, yearling and young racehorse influences the DNA and affects behaviour, disease and racing performance.

This project will build on a 15-year research programme led by Professor Hill and Professor Katz in equine exercise physiology and genomics at UCD which has uncovered many genetic contributions to athletic traits in the horse. The UCD research team has been a world leader in the development of genetic tests for racehorses.

Professor Emmeline Hill, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science said, “We are delighted to receive this prestigious funding from SFI through the Frontiers for the Future Programme. In our new research programme we will investigate genetic and epigenetic contributions to exercise, disease and behaviour traits in racehorses.”

“Epigenetics refers to the modification of DNA that can alter the activity of genes. A major component of the project is to understand how the early life environment of the foal influences its genetic potential for success. This is the first time that epigenetic changes to the DNA of elite athletes, of any species, will be profiled and followed from the early neonatal period to high level performance.”

She added, “The DNA that a foal is born with plays a key role in its future potential, but not a defining role. How breeders, trainers, handlers and jockeys shape the DNA of a horse during its early years may have a comparable or perhaps larger contribution to its success. In this project we will use sophisticated genomics technologies to evaluate how the early life environment affects traits that contribute to racecourse success”.

There is likely an intricate interplay in behavioural and exercise adaptation between the inherited DNA and the environment that is mediated by epigenetics, which is an additional layer of regulatory information that modulates the activity of genes.

Epigenetic modifications determine how individuals with the same or different genetics will respond to particular environments. Genetics (DNA) is fixed from birth, but epigenetics is dynamic and responsive to external inputs and influences how genes are expressed. This could be particularly relevant to the Thoroughbred where the management of a horse is considered as important as genetics in success on the racetrack.

Professor Lisa Katz, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine said, “The benefits of exercise for health and wellbeing are well established, positively influencing clinical presentation of a variety of neurological, musculoskeletal and metabolic diseases. An emerging theme in our genetics research suggests a link between the exercise response and behavioural adaptability in the horse.”

Other academic collaborators on this project include; Professor David MacHugh, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science, Professor Keith Murphy, UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science and Professor Molly McCue, University of Minnesota.

Irish equine science company, Plusvital Ltd and Jim Bolger, the renowned racehorse trainer and breeder, through his stud farm in Co. Wexford, will also contribute to this research project.

Professor Katz added, “We are very grateful to be supported once again by Jim Bolger and his team, who have contributed to our research projects for more than 15 years. Without the access to horses for our research this work would not be possible. Our collaboration is unique in the global equine research community, and we are delighted this opportunity has been recognised.”

The funding award will result in the establishment of four new research positions at UCD.

Professor Michael Doherty, Dean, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine expressed delight and congratulations to Professors Hill and Katz and said, “This research project is completely aligned with the School’s vision of a flourishing veterinary school, positively impacting health, animal welfare and its aspiration to create a world class Centre of Excellence in Equine Health Care and Rehabilitation.”

Pictured at University College Dublin are (l-r): Professor Emmeline Hill, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science and Professor Lisa Katz, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine.  Photograph Nick Bradshaw.