Focus on the
by Terri Darr
Research scientists in
the College of Agriculture are making it their life’s work to
enhance Kentucky’s signature industry.
James MacLeod and Naoki Miura
Helping Horses Remain Sound
When James N. MacLeod in Veterinary Science is asked about his
research on arthritis and other joint diseases in horses, he might
mention the genetic tools being developed that could help scientists
understand how equine diseases occur and how they can be
Or, he might talk about research to find new
diagnostic techniques and medicines for horses plagued by joint
But one topic MacLeod probably won’t broach is the
justification for his work.
“Horses are tangibly embraced
here; they’re part of the Kentucky culture,” said MacLeod, who holds
the John S. and Elizabeth A. Knight Chair for musculoskeletal
sciences. “I don’t have to explain to anybody why being a scientist
studying problems in horses is important.”
In a state where
horses are the No. 1 agricultural cash crop, few people question the
necessity of equine research—especially research aimed at solving
one of the industry’s most pressing problems.
issues are the No. 1 reason why athletic careers in horses are
limited,” said MacLeod.
MacLeod and students in his
laboratory are studying arthritis and changes in joint cartilage
that appear as a horse matures and starts to exercise. He is
overseeing experiments that examine changes in how genes are
activated, or “expressed,” in chondrocytes, the cells that make and
maintain joint cartilage.
“We try to understand how these
cells function normally and how their function changes when joint
disease develops and the cartilage starts to fail,” he
The long-term goals of MacLeod’s research are to
minimize the possibility that horses will develop arthritis and
other joint diseases and to help them remain sound. Along the way,
he also would like to broaden understanding of how new
equine-specific genetic tools being developed can be used to
identify genes that are important for soundness and durability.
Joseph L. Purswell
Easing the Stress of Travel
Hitting the road
with a horse in tow is part and parcel of the equine industry. Some
horses adapt well to travel, especially short trips. Others do not,
and many of them develop a common respiratory infection called
shipping fever as a result of long trips. They are also more
susceptible to diseases such as colic, diarrhea, and
The reason? Poor ventilation and high temperatures
inside a horse trailer, the noise of the moving vehicle, and an
unnatural sense of confinement all contribute to stress. And stress
in horses—as in people—can cause changes in their immune system and
predispose them to disease.
“Transport stress is not a widely
known problem outside of the people who actually deal with animals,”
said Joseph L. Purswell '05, Ph.D. in biosystems and agricultural
engineering (now an agricultural engineer with the USDA’s Poultry
Research Unit at Mississippi State University). Purswell has taken a
close look at transport stress. “It’s a little bit of a challenge to
make people see that this is a problem.”
One person Purswell
did not have to convince was Richard Gates, chair of the Department
of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. With Gates’ guidance,
Purswell and Angela Green '02, '04 initiated a unique,
multidisciplinary research project on the subject. (Green, B.S. in
ag engineering and M.S. in biosystems and ag engineering, is now a
National Science Foundation graduate fellow at Iowa
Purswell assessed ventilation and temperature in a
trailer during transport. One set of experiments involved a scale
model of a wind tunnel, the first such experiments of their kind.
Green’s study remotely measured the horses’ heart rate and body
temperature during transport—also groundbreaking work.
of the most interesting implications of the research came from study
of blood chemistry changes during transport.
“It has many
times been shown that immune protection is reduced for long trips,”
Green said. “However, our trip of only 100 miles documented a
progression of immune suppression over the short trip duration.”
Both Purswell and Green characterize their research as a
first step in bringing attention to the problems associated with
Studying Foal, Mare
UK’s Laurie Lawrence, professor of animal and
food sciences, considers it her job—perhaps even her passion—to help
Kentucky’s equine industry produce quality foals.
production in Central Kentucky, not only for Thoroughbreds but for
other breeds as well, is a very important component of the whole
industry here,” Lawrence said. “Making sure foals are healthy and
can be good performance horses are high priorities.”
part, Lawrence focuses on mare and foal nutrition. Two research
projects are particularly notable.
One of them looked at
selenium supplementation of mares and its effect on their foals.
Selenium, a trace mineral found in the soil, is important for muscle
maintenance and for strengthening the immune response. It is
normally ingested by horses while they forage. However, selenium is
deficient in the soil in Kentucky, and supplementation is
The second study looked at foals during the
“We’ve been pretty active in looking at
either different dietary practices or different management practices
that can minimize the stress that’s associated with weaning,”
Lawrence’s research has gained notice not only
for its scientific discovery but for its approach.
unique in what we do in that we really try to incorporate the
practical environment the horses are raised in into our research
program,” she said.
Lawrence is also looking more carefully
at the mare.
“One of the questions that we would like to
answer is whether or not, over the course of many pregnancies, mares
are getting adequate nutrition,” she said.
A cornerstone of
UK’s equine research, Lawrence said, is “the focus we have on
graduate students and in producing equine nutritionists who go back
either into academia or into the feed industry.”
The College is home
Equine Disease Quarterly
which includes articles written by
faculty and other equine researchers and professionals throughout
the world as well as up-to-date information on equine disease
The internationally-read publication is funded by
insurance underwriters Lloyd’s of London, brokers, and their
Kentucky agents and marked its 50th issue earlier this year.
Editors are Roberta Dwyer and David Powell,
Department of Veterinary Science, and Neil Williams, Livestock
Disease Diagnostic Center.
To read the Equine Disease Quarterly online, go