U of M researchers work to preserve last endangered wild horse species

Preserving the population

There’s new hope for the last endangered wild horse species in the world due to research at the University of Minnesota.

Przewalski’s horses are native to central Asia and became extinct in the wild in the 1960s. However, the species was kept alive through captive breeding programs and reintroductions. Today, there are less than 2,000 Przewalski’s horses worldwide, and about 500 of those horses live in the wild. 

“There’s been many coordinated efforts to preserve the population and increase their population, reintroduce them back into the wild,” said Nicole Flack, a University of Minnesota researcher. 

A study, published in the G3 journal, was led by Flack and Lauren Hughes, researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine, along with Christopher Faulk, a professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota. U of M students contributed to the genome sequencing through Faulk’s animal science course.

Researchers used a blood sample from Varuschka, a 10-year-old Przewalski’s mare at the Minnesota Zoo, to construct a representative map of genes for the species. The zoo has long been active in Przewalski’s horse breeding and management, with over 50 foals born since the 1970s.

The research team uses cutting-edge technology, a machine about the size of a computer monitor, to sequence the horse’s DNA and map the animal’s genes, known as its genome.

There is a smaller version of the machine that can be used to study Przewalski’s horses in remote locations in the wild and monitor diseases.

“The first human genome in the early 2000’s, took about a decade to complete and cost about $3 billion,” Flack said. 

Since then, the technology has progressed so much, it only took researchers a few weeks to map out the genome of the endangered animal with a price tag in the thousands.

The data is publicly available for scientists and conservationists.