UT Professor, with International Team, Proves Cave Drawings Are Accurate

Rebecca Bellone was Sought for Her Expertise in Equine Pigmentation Genetics

Published: Nov 21, 2011
Elizabeth Kowalski ’12, left, and Taryn Cranford ’12, right, with Associate Professor Rebecca Bellone, middle, demonstrate methods used in Bellone’s research.
Elizabeth Kowalski ’12, left, and Taryn Cranford ’12, right, with Associate Professor Rebecca Bellone, middle, demonstrate methods used in Bellone’s research.
Kowalski , left, and Cranford, right, with Bellone, middle, demonstrate how to use a DNA genetic analyzer, a tool used in Bellone’s research.
Kowalski , left, and Cranford, right, with Bellone, middle, demonstrate how to use a DNA genetic analyzer, a tool used in Bellone’s research.

In 1997 Rebecca Bellone was a new graduate student at the University of Kentucky, at the start of what would become a lifelong study of the genes responsible for Appaloosa spotting in horses.


She remembers giving her first presentation, which started with the notion that the genetic mutation responsible for spotting in horses’ coats is thought to have existed at the end of the last ice age, as exemplified by cave paintings in Perch-Merle, France, but in 1997 this couldn’t be tested.


This month, a team of researchers she collaborates with published findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that show the gene mutation existed in the ice age. This was a full-circle moment for Bellone.


“To collaborate on this project has been fun and exciting as this is a question that has intrigued me for as long as I have been studying this spotting pattern,” said Bellone, an associate professor of biology.


There is debate about what cave paintings like those in Pech-Merle represent: true life depictions or artistic creativity. Anthropologists are interested in the research because proving these horses existed thousands of years ago might mean the other animals depicted – like mammoths – would have existed and gives clues as to what these animals may have looked like in that location at that time as well.


This is important because it begs the question – how does a mutation endure so long when mutations that typically make an animal weaker die out? This was the thought with Appaloosa spotting, which has been associated with night-blindness.


“It suggests there must be an advantage,” said Bellone, guessing the spotting patterns helped to camouflage the horses in snowy environments, or perhaps something less obvious like it caused a behavioral or immunological advantage. “The most exciting thing about science is that you don’t know how one finding can lead you down another different and exciting road.”


Bellone was sought out to participate on the international research team exploring ancient DNA in horses lead by Arne Ludwig from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. Monika Reissmann, one of the team’s members, remembered meeting and seeing a presentation of Bellone’s on the leopard complex spotting gene associated with Appaloosa spotting at a July 2008 conference of the International Society of Animal Genetics in the Netherlands.


In 2009, Bellone was asked to join the 11-member study because of her specialty with the leopard complex spotting. It was in her University of Tampa lab where she made the discovery that an SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism or one change in the sequence of DNA) was associated with the leopard complex spotting. This polymorphism was used to determine if the genetic mutation for this spotting pattern existed in the wild ancient horse DNA.   


Working with ancient DNA poses challenges because contaminating samples means history lost. Also, the samples are degraded over time so scientist are only able to get small fragments of DNA to read, which requires different testing methods.


“It makes it trickier to work with, but my collaborators are experts in working with a DNA” said Bellone, who had never worked with ancient DNA.   


Several UT students have been involved in this study, extracting DNA from modern horses and testing reactions that lead to the discovery of the mutation.

To learn important molecular biology techniques in her molecular biology laboratory course, Bellone’s students genotype horses for this mutation and determine if night-blindness is present as well.


“Science is an adventure,” said Bellone. “For me, this particular study has been really fascinating.”


Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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