Sunday evening, March 11, 2018, 60 Minutes aired a story about how cloned ponies have infiltrated polo in Argentina (1). A multi-faceted account reported by Lesley Stahl, it is well worth your time.
An accident involving a prized pony may have started it all. Before the animal was euthanized, the owner, a champion polo player and noted pony breeder directed a veterinarian to preserve skin cell samples. In 2006 he was anticipating the day might come when it would be possible to resurrect his lost pony. His foresight paid off.
Several animal species have been cloned and the technology is generally available. However, the work is complicated and expensive making the cloning of companion or champion animals a game for the well-funded (2). Using cells harvested from several of their best horses the polo breeders have created more than 100 clones. These activities are legal and permissible under the rules of polo.
Nature vs. Nurture Again
Does having the right genes make a champion polo pony or are a good environment and proper training the most important factors? The 60 Minutes program reveals the clones are raised in a truly extraordinary environment featuring special diets, expert care and superb training. Despite some subtle physical differences, the discussion that the clones possess the aptitudes and dispositions of their progenitors is quite interesting. No claims are made that the clones are totally identical to their ancestors – some spontaneous mutations, mostly inconsequential, will always be present. In addition, the clones are produced in surrogate mares. That means the gestational environment will be close, but not identical to, the conditions for the originals. Environmental conditions exert some influence over gene expression and development.
Couldn’t expert breeders accomplish the same thing as the high-tech cloners? In one sense they already did exactly that – the clones were derived from ponies created by just such methods. The other consideration is that the clones beg the question as to which animals are the best – that decision was already made and carried forward into the future through cloning. But, can anyone be sure that donor animals selected possessed the best polo pony genetic profile there ever can be?
The ultimate test for polo ponies is success on the field of competition. In a championship match of clones vs. breeders, the clones prevailed by the narrowest of margins (1). Perhaps this reflects the fact that the human riders also play a significant role in the competition. In a situation where both horses and riders are top flight, it would appear cloned ponies did not offer any huge competitive advantage.
As is the case for ponies produced in the traditional ways, the value of clone-sired foals is based on the pedigree of their ancestors. Cloned ponies are mated with champion stock and the foals may command a high price – sold for a reported maximum price of $250,000 (1). The pony breeder/cloner interviewed noted something interesting about the fate of the cloned animals. They are never sold. The reason is simple, if you marketed them it would not be long before everybody had the same miracle stock. End of mystique and/or competitive advantage.
The amount of tissue needed to clone a champion polo pony is small and perhaps misappropriation of clones will become a problem. Or the issues of safeguarding clones might get even more complex. It may become necessary to update the definition of clone (3) yet again as scientists begin developing more powerful genetic manipulation technologies (4). For example, what if new technologies allow someone to take the genomic sequence of a champion and simply introduce all the genetic changes that turn an ordinary animal into a proven top performer? Is that clone infringement? As the cloners should understand, each new technology opens up new possibilities. The cat-and-mouse intrigues of elite Olympic athletes attempting to gain advantage (5) suggests that competitive forces might spur the emergence of a genomics high technology race in the polo pony world of the future.
Never Sell the Clones
For now, polo pony foals derived from champion stock are valuable. However, it is uncertain how much genetic variability exists in breeding stocks. Perhaps there is a magic genetic profile that only the champion animals possess. It may not take long to determine if that is true. Refusing to sell clones is a brilliant, if potentially temporary, business strategy. In the future persons unable to purchase a genetic champion pony may be able to construct one of their own.
Thanks to Carol Rainey for making certain I saw the 60 Minutes story on polo pony clones. http://www.carolrainey.com/
(1) Lesley Stahl. The Clones of Polo. 60 Minutes, (CBS News), 11 March 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-clones-of-polo/
(2) Matt Stevens. Barbra Streisand Cloned Her Dog. For $50,000, You Can Clone Yours. The New York Times, 28 February 2018. https://nyti.ms/2COao5l
(3) National Human Genome Research Institute. https://www.genome.gov/25020028/cloning-fact-sheet/
(4) D. Boeke et al. 2016. The Genome Project-Write. Science, 8 July 2016, [353(6295):126-127]. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6295/126.full
(5) Bret Stetka. Have We Reached the Athletic Limits of the Human Body? Scientific American, 5 August 2016. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/have-we-reached-the-athletic-limits-of-the-human-body/