This equine may be stubborn, but he’s not your average mule.
Utah Pioneer is a clone — an echo of his brother Idaho Gem and predecessor of his brother Idaho Star — born in 2003 as a product of University of Idaho and Utah State University research. He is the only clone still living on UI’s campus.
The mules were created to mirror Taz, an award-winning racing mule owned by Idaho businessman Don Jacklin, who partially funded the clone research.
“Jacklin wanted a clone as close to Taz as you could get,” said Bill Loftus, UI journalism professor and science writer.
Loftus said Utah began as a mare’s unfertilized egg.
Genetic material was removed from the egg, and mule fetus skin cells produced by Taz’s parents were inserted into the egg, placed in a dish and electrically shocked. Once the cells divided, the mule embryo was inserted into Idaho Rose, Utah’s surrogate mother. Nearly 360 days later, Utah was born.
But Utah and his brothers took more than five years to get right. Loftus said embryo transfers are difficult, especially when mares only produce one foal a year.
“(The embryo clones) didn’t have enough horsepower to follow through like a normal embryo would,” Loftus said.
After three years of trying, there had been no success.
So in order to “rev” up the embryos, UI researchers used a broth-like calcium substance. By 2002, Loftus said there had been three pregnancies within 90 days, although most pregnancies were lost at 60 days. Finally, researchers got just the right amount of calcium concentration and a mule was born the next year.
It was off to the races and training to be the next Taz began. Idaho Gem and Idaho Star won their first races in June 2006, while Utah was left in the dust after a training injury.
“The training method didn’t agree with his personality,” Loftus said.
Since the genetically-identical brothers were not equal athletes, the question of nature or nurture arose. Loftus said it is unclear whether Utah’s cloned DNA prevented his racing success or if the parenting of surrogate mother, Idaho Rose, made him a racing adversary.
“Utah Pioneer is ornery,” said Stacey Doumit, Horse Science and Management instructor. “Not all mules are like that.”
Doumit said Utah and Rose would have been together for three to six months during his infancy. Although she has not seen “learned meanness” in foals, she said foals mimic their mothers.
But just like humans, Doumit said each foal has its own personality.
Utah remains at pasture with four other horses and will remain a university attraction throughout his retirement.
Although racing didn’t turn out to be Utah’s gift, he is still a one-of-a … wait … three-of-a-kind mule.
Clone for the cure
Calcium research didn’t just jump-start embryo production, but was a main theme of the cloning process.
During the cloning, researcher Gordon Woods focused on the lack of cancer in horses. Loftus said prostate cancer is non-existent in stallions and skin cancer in white horses doesn’t metastasize. Woods found horses have one-third the calcium of humans, which is the fuel for cancer cells. Horses bodies have elevated amounts of cadmium, a calcium suppressor, and low quantities of calcium overall. Humans — especially those practicing the Western diet — are quite the opposite with high concentrations of calcium from diets full of dairy and red meat.
Humans may be far from being cloned, but cloning equines may be the right step toward human development.