Researchers in the New South Wales Hunter Valley have developed a new scientific method they say could boost horse breeding around the world.
The scientists from the University of Newcastle have developed a new nutrient-rich liquid that is added to deposits of horse semen collected after ejaculation, which keeps the sperm alive for longer at an ambient temperature.
Horse sperm have short lifespans, and traditionally to preserve them for longer than a few days, the samples had to be chilled or cryopreserved, which can be damaging to the cells.
With the new liquid, the sperm could remain viable for up to two weeks, as opposed to about three days when chilled.
This means higher-quality samples could be sent overseas for breeding programs in other countries, and they would have a greater chance of success.
New collaboration leads to breeding research
The research came about after a linkage grant collaboration between stakeholders in the national and international equine sector, and included a number of universities.
"There's sometimes a bit of a disconnect between what happens in the research world and what's happening out in the real world and in the industry," Aleona Swegen, a scientist working on the project, said.
"There are some hurdles they come up against, especially in regards to fertility and how successful breeding programs can be.
"Horses have, in a way, fallen behind a lot of the other animal industries.
"We're working on a project that is hoping to improve fertility for horses.
"This is a world-first in the scale of the project, but it's also really important that the industry are the ones who are initiating this, and they're coming to us with questions."
Breakthrough could improve breeding options
The Hunter Valley is the world's second-largest Thoroughbred breeding area.
While the Thoroughbred stud book does not allow the use of artificial insemination, other horse breeders are expected to benefit from the scientific breakthrough.
"We're developing new media for the storage of horse semen at room temperature, so that we can potentially transport it around the world [without chilling or freezing the cells]," Zamira Gibb, a post-doctoral research fellow working on the project, said.
"Once we collect the semen, we add our new semen extender. In that medium, which is just a liquid, we have components that will support their metabolism.
"While they're actively metabolising, they're going to be producing a lot of reactive oxygen species and waste products, so there are other components in that media that will help to clean them up."
Cryopreservation technology, where sperm is frozen, has been used for years, but the scientists said it increased the risk of damage to the sample.
Storing the sperm at ambient temperature, with appropriate nutrients to support their survival, negated that risk.
"The ability to transport sperm around the world has been around for the last 50 years, but it does require cryopreservation," Dr Gibb said.
"The process of cryopreservation can be very damaging to the cells, and it can cause them to have an extremely reduced lifespan once you thaw them out, so the fertility is generally quite markedly reduced."
New technique could break down international boundaries
Jen Clulow, a veterinarian involved in the project, said the ability to transport sperm at ambient temperatures would help studs wanting to breed their horses with animals overseas.
"If we were able to use our ambient temperature media to transport [sperm] from America to Australia to breed mares, then we would be able to potentially harness the genetic potential from that stallion and put it into an Australian horse population," she said.
The researchers are trying to minimise potential biohazards and eliminate any bacterial contamination by investigating the best device to transport the sperm.
Dr Swegen said it was an exciting development for the Hunter's breeding industry.
"It is a wonderful advantage for the breeders in the area, and I think it's great they'll be able to get their hands on something that's a world-first," she said.
"It's also great for the equine breeding industries around the world."