Innovation in Equine Industry: Mule Reproduction

Masters candidate Emily Smith conducts stem cell research at The Horse Science Center at MTSU in Murfreesboro.

Researchers at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and Vanderbilt University are working together on a project that could have groundbreaking applications in the livestock industry as well as human medicine.

After working together on research of mineral deficiencies in cattle, Warren Gill, director of MTSU’s School of Agribusiness and Agriscience, and James West, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, realized they could combine their expertise and resources to perform important stem cell research.

“The MTSU Ag School does not currently have the level of genomic research that Vanderbilt can do, but Vanderbilt doesn’t have cattle,” Gill says. “When we come together, good things happen.” Currently, Gill, West and MTSU associate professor John Haffner are working to see if it’s possible for mules, which are sterile, to reproduce through stem cell technology. The goal is to insert spermatozoa-producing stem cells from a donor horse into a male mule’s reproductive organs to allow breeding to take place when it would have otherwise been impossible.

The research has been done in other animals – rats, mice, hamsters, pigs, dogs, cattle and goats – but mules are different because they cannot reproduce on their own. If the research works, the scientists will know the donor’s stem cells have attached and grown, proving the viability of the method.

Innovation in Equine Industry: Mule Reproduction

Dr. Warren Gill, a professor and the director of the School of Agribusiness and Agriscience at MTSU, says stem cell research in animals could lead to improved health for humans.

Livestock Applications

“The end goal right now is to see if it can be done,” Haffner says. “The application for this technology in livestock would be to preserve the genetics of a valuable stallion or bull who had to be castrated, or for possible genetic manipulation.”

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Gill says the idea of targeting specific problem genes, replacing them with good genes and using those stem cells to produce higher-quality animals would be extremely valuable in the livestock industry.

“Sometimes these animals are superior animals with one little defect,” Gill says. “If we could remove or block those bad genes, perhaps we could improve the lives of animals and also make them more productive. We might be able to do things like make a pig genetically resistant to some common viruses they suffer from.”

Innovation in Equine Industry: Mule Reproduction

Human Applications

Being able to use stem cells to produce genetically superior spermatozoa in animals is just the beginning of this research, West says. “In human medicine, we’ve gotten really good at curing childhood cancer, but almost all of the boys become sterile from the treatment,” West says. “So the issue of learning how to transfer these stem cells correctly is important in preserving fertility in boys who are cancer survivors. Managing to make this work in mules will be important to human medicine.”

If the method can be proven to work in mules, West hopes small-scale clinical trials could begin in young boys receiving cancer treatment in about five years.

“Basically, we hope to be able to take stem cells from a boy before he receives treatment, multiply them and keep them alive in a lab,” Gill says. “And then when he’s an adult, he can get his stem cells back, so he can have children.”

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