Foal and Adult Horse


Parentage Testing Procedures

Parentage testing is based on the principle of exclusion, that is, a DNA profile of an offspring is compared to that of its parents and if matches can not be made the parent is excluded, however if matches are made, at each DNA marker evaluated, then the parent is said to qualify. A DNA profile—which provides information for several genetic markers—is obtained, and parentage analysis is performed. A variety of sample types can be utilized for routine testing, including blood, hair, semen, buccal swabs, and FTA cards. Non-routine sample types include bone, teeth, saliva, dried blood, urine, and feces. DNA is extracted from the samples, and the process of establishing a DNA profile begins with the PCR procedure. After which, the DNA profile of the offspring is compared to those of the presumed parents. A parentage specialist analyzes and reviews the results, performs several quality control experiments, and sends the final report. If a listed parent or parents are initially excluded, additional analysis is performed including retesting of samples and the possible use of additional DNA markers to confirm the exclusion.

Detailed DNA Parent Verification Information

Since the late 1950's parentage verification has been utilized in animal registration programs. Breeder experiences have proven that parentage testing, in combination with well run breeding programs, can ensure accurate pedigrees which preserves the integrity of animal breeds. This article will explain the basis of the DNA-based parentage test performed at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory (VGL) and address the role of parentage analysis in animal breeding programs.

DNA and Microsatellite Structure

Understanding the DNA based parentage test requires a brief explanation of DNA structure. The DNA molecule contains four variations of a chemical structure called a base. These variants are referred to in shorthand as A, C, G and T. Chromosomes are comprised of millions of these four bases arranged in a linear fashion called a DNA strand. The sequence of these four bases at specific sites along the chromosomes is what determines the genetic code for each individual animal. Also found throughout animal genomes are specific sequences of bases repeated in a tandem fashion and referred to as microsatellite DNA markers. The most common microsatellite markers contain a two base sequence repeated in tandem, hence they are also referred to as short tandem repeats or STRs for short. An example of this is a CA sequence repeated ten times but flanked by unique sequence: (...TCAGGTCTACACACACACACACACACACATGCTTATGTACT...) The genomes of mammalian species contain thousands of these microsatellite markers.

Genetic Variation and DNA Analysis

The number of tandem repeats found at any given microsatellite marker will vary between individual animals. Places in the DNA where there are differences from one individual to the next are known as genetic variation. Genetic variation at the microsatellite level has been exploited by molecular biologists for a variety of functions. Microsatellite markers are the basis for individual identification, in forensics application for example, and are also used for the majority of animal parentage testing done today. The various forms of a given microsatellite that are identified by differences in the number of repeats are referred to as alleles and these are inherited in a Mendelian fashion. Meaning, an animal may possess only two alleles for a specific microsatellite, one inherited from its dam and the other from its sire. So if we consider the example above where for this particular allele the repeat length was ten (.....TCAGGTCTACACACACACACACACACACATGCTTATGTACT.....) genetic variation may exist in a population where some individuals have 12 repeats (.....TCAGGTCTACACACACACACACACACACACACATGCTTATGTACT......) and others might have 14 repeats (.....TCAGGTCTACACACACACACACACACACACACACACATGCTTATGTACT.....). The size of the alleles possessed by an offspring must correspond to those of the presumed parents. Thus if the sire had the allele with ten repeats and the dam had he allele with 14 repeats the offspring would have one allele with ten and one allele with 14 repeats. With an increase in the number of repeats there is a proportional increase in the allele size. Thus part of developing the DNA profile is to detect these size variations DNA. We do so by isolating the DNA from the sample, amplify several microsatellites by the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and at the same time tag these PCR products with a fluorescent dye. The dye-labeled alleles are detected by laser excitation and their size determined by gel electrophoresis and computer analysis. To have accurate parental exclusions several microsattelite markers are evaluated (typically 12-18) but the number needed is depends on several factors including the genetic diversity that exists with in a population.

Parentage Case Scenarios

The typical animal parentage case, as seen with most domestic species, includes a dam, offspring and one or more sires. Generally the identity of the dam is fairly certain. As mentioned earlier, in order to qualify to a set of parents an offspring must possess the same allele sizes as the parents. Outlined below are a few examples of the types of animal parentage cases submitted to the VGL. The numbers represent the allele sizes, which are the number of DNA base repeats, determined by PCR and gel electrophoresis.

I. Typical Parentage Case

One dam and three possible sires. For simplicity only four markers are shown.

Marker A B C D
Dam 86/112 150/164 202/206 224/260
Offspring 86/112 150/156 202/204 224/226
Sire 1 86/116 156/168 204 226/242
Sire 2 96/120 156/158 194/202 222/242
Sire 3 102/116 152 202 226

In this case the dam and sire 1 qualify as possible parents. Sires 2 and 3 are excluded at several markers without consideration of the dam. The alleles that have excluded sires 2 and 3 as possible parents are shown in bold. For example, at Marker A the offspring's DNA type is 86/112 and Sire 2's type is 96/120; there are no alleles in common. Sire 2 and the offspring also have no alleles in common at Marker D and Sire 2 is again excluded.

II. Mating Exclusion Case

Sire 4, below, is used to illustrate such a case. The dam, offspring and sire 1 are from example I.

Sire 4 86/128 150/164 188/202 224/228

The offspring possesses a Marker B 156 allele, a Marker C 204 allele and a Marker D 226 allele that are not possessed by either the dam or sire 4. This data indicates that one of the parents is incorrect. The offspring could have inherited the Marker B 150 allele, the Marker C 202 allele and the Marker D 224 allele from either parent. Therefore, neither parent can be definitively excluded so the mating must be excluded.

In the majority of cases, if all available microsatellite markers are utilized, one parent will be positively excluded from the mating. However, the outcome of a mating exclusion case can change significantly if only one parent is provided. In this case without knowledge of the dam's genetic contribution, both sire 1 and 4 would appear to qualify as a parent, which demonstrates the importance of providing both a dam and sire in a parentage case.

Accuracy of Parentage Analysis

Parentage testing identifies individuals that, due to a specific combination of marker alleles, could qualify as a parent for a particular offspring. Accurate parentage testing requires breeders to identify possible parents since if considering a randomly selected large group of individuals there could be more than one that qualifies as a parent. As an example, human paternity testing was originally developed as a means to verify that a named individual could or could not be the father of a given child. At most it was meant to determine if one of several men could be the father of a child. The same rules hold true for animal parentage testing. A good application for animal parentage testing is verification that the dam is correct and which of the sires on a particular farm are the actual sire.

Finally, it is important to remember that while parentage exclusions are 100% accurate, parentage qualifications are not. The accuracy of most animal parentage tests is greater than 99% when both parents are included in the analysis and drops to around 95% when only one parent is included in the analysis. However, this accuracy will decrease when the potential parents are part of a large group of closely related animals. Again, an animal closely related to an actual parent could possess marker alleles that make it appear to be the correct parent. To prevent erroneous parentage qualifications, breeders need to submit samples from all possible parents when first requesting parentage verification. If more than one sire and one dam qualify as parents of an offspring, the laboratory can then test with additional DNA markers to sort out the actual parents.


For forms, pricing, and sample instructions, please select a species from the VGL Species List.