x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

DNA testing to make contest a different race for camels

Genetic sequencing will keep banned breeds out of game.

DUBAI // High-tech genome sequencing being introduced in Dubai could help keep banned camel breeds out of local races.

Camel racing in the UAE is a multi-million-dirham business. But Dubai has strict rules about exactly which camels can be entered.

In 1996, race organisers banned Sudanese camels after it was decided their superior speed made for unfair competition.

Now, those who wish to enter a race must submit their camel to a rigorous parentage and DNA test by the Dubai Camel Racing Club.

Pure Arabian camels have a chip inserted under their skin on the left side, and are allowed to enter specific competitions. Hybrids are chipped on the right side, and have separate races.

In horse racing, animals' pedigree and phenotype can be discerned by their physical characteristics. But according to Kamal Khazanehdari, the head of the molecular biology and genetics section of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, that is not the case with camels.

"You can't physically differentiate between breeds, so you have to profile the genotype and verify it with the parents," he added.

The laboratory helps the club by testing the blood to identifying a group of microsatellite markers (repeating sequences of base pairs of DNA). It then looks for the same markers in the parents.

The process is challenging. "You need a large group of markers to verify parentage," Dr Khazanehdari said. Although Dubai Camel Racing Club has been building a database of camel DNA samples, Dr Khazanehdari believes more research into dissecting the camel genome could make discovering parentage easier, as well as help treat diseases.

Last summer researchers from China and Saudi Arabia announced that they had sequenced and analysed the genome of the Arabian camel, Camelus dromedarius. It is made up of roughly 2.2 billion base pairs, with each base pair being one of the four letters of the DNA "alphabet".

The researchers' analysis suggests the Arabian camel shares genetic similarities with cattle - and that about 60 per cent of its genes are also found in humans.

The discovery could help enhance desirable traits, such as speed and strength, by selective breeding.

But so far, according to Dr Khazanehdari, the camel's genetic markers are poorly known, and only one sequence is available. With a fuller map, the laboratory could conduct far more thorough testing.

"When the human genome was sequenced everyone was cheering, and now we have a lot of work to help stop diseases and genetic disorders," he said.

mdetrie@thenational.ae