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Thoroughbred racing Scientists think racehorses have special speed genes that make them good sprinters.
(John Gress / Reuters)

One Big Speedy Family

Scientists have traced racehorses like Secretariat to a single mare from the 1600s

By Tyrus Cukavac | January 31 , 2012
<p>Scientists studied Secretariat’s DNA to help identify what makes racehorses so fast. (Bettmann / Corbis) </p>

Scientists studied Secretariat’s DNA to help identify what makes racehorses so fast. (Bettmann / Corbis)

What did famous racehorses Secretariat, Seabiscuit, and Man o’ War have in common? Besides being champions at the racetrack, they may all be closely related to each other, according to scientists in the United Kingdom.

Those scientists compared DNA samples from almost 600 horses from 22 different breeds (including some zebras and donkeys). DNA is the genetic code found in all living things that carries information about an organism and its family tree. The researchers also studied the remains of 12 famous horses, like Secretariat, which are housed in museums. The racehorses’ DNA all pointed back to one mare (female horse) that lived in England in the 17th century.

They also found that most champion horses have a combination of two specific genes that affect muscle development in the horses. This special gene combination allows them to sprint, or run very quickly in short bursts, which is an important element of horse racing.

Horse racing is a popular sport all across the world and has many passionate fans. If scientists can identify what makes a horse run fast, some racehorse owners could have an edge in races by buying horses with the right genes.

Scientists are also using this kind of research to learn more about how genes affect all living things, including people. Understanding better how genes work can help scientists find out what genes cause cancer and other diseases, and maybe even develop cures.

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