Simanaitis Says

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“IN 1925,” ELIZABETH PENNISI RECOUNTS IN AAAS Science, April 27, 2023, “a sled dog named Balto made headlines around the world when he braved fierce winds, a raging blizzard, and splintering river ice to bring lifesaving serum to an isolated Alaskan town struck with diphtheria.”

Pennisi reports in “Hidden Details of World’s Most Famous Sled Dog Revealed in Massive Genomics Project”: “Now, researchers have pieced together a fuller picture of the celebrated canine from DNA taken from the underbelly of his stuffed, faded carcass. Aided by hundreds of newly sequenced genomes and an extensive database of dog DNA, they were able to glean details about Balto’s size, appearance, and stamina not captured in historical photos of the famed canine.”

Balto, 1919–1933, sled dog famed for leading on the final leg of the 1925 serum run in which diphtheria antitoxin was transported from Anchorage to Nome. This and following images from Science, April 28, 2023. 

A Genomic Achievement. “The work,” Pennisi describes, “reported today in Science with 10 other papers about a massive sequencing effort called Zoonomia, speaks to the power of having many accurately sequenced genomes on file, says Greger Larson, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Oxford who also was not involved in the research. He says the project will permit scientists to better assess the looks, physiology, and perhaps even the conservation status of species based on single genomes.” 

Methodology. Researchers wanted to know what this new resource could reveal about individuals. So, they sequenced DNA from a pencil eraser–size tissue sample from the 100-year-old sun-bleached belly of the stuffed Balto, who is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.”

Pennisi continues, “Kathleen Morrill, a geneticist now at Colossal Biosciences, looked to see how well Balto’s conserved DNA matched that in other species within the Zoonomia data set. She also compared his DNA with more than 600 genomes of wolves, coyotes, and dogs of different breeds. These included modern sled dog breeds such as Siberian huskies, more physically and genetically isolated sled dogs in Greenland, and ‘village dogs’—ownerless canines that live in Africa, South America, and Asia and make up 80% of the world’s dogs.”

Results. Katherine L. Moon et al give details in “Comparative Genomics of Balto, a Famous Historic Dog, Captures Lost Diversity of 1920s Sled Dogs,” Science,  April 28, 2023. 

“Balto,” the researchers note, “belonged to a population of small, fast, and fit sled dogs imported from Siberia. By sequencing his genome from his taxidermied remains and analyzing these data in the context of large comparative and canine datasets, we show that Balto and his working sled dog contemporaries were more genetically diverse than modern breeds and may have carried variants that helped them survive the harsh conditions of 1920s Alaska.”

Balto and his musher Gunnar Kaasen. Image by AP.

In conclusion, they say, “Although the era of Balto and his contemporaries has passed, comparative genomics, supported by a growing collection of modern and past genomes, can provide insights into the selective pressures that shaped them.”

On Another Note Entirely. Wife Dottie and I enjoyed the canine companionship of Kenwood for some 19 years. One day as a pup, he showed up rummaging through our garbage bags (back before we had relatively impervious bins). We put up signs to no avail and our vet advised he was several months old and, in typical Husky fashion, might have strayed for miles. 

We added Kenwood to the family, his name derived from one of our favorite wines, Jack London Vineyard Kenwood Cabernet Sauvignon.

Kenwood’s Godfather. At the time, Grand Prix pal Innes Ireland was a regular visitor and he became Kenwood’s godfather. Despite this tutelage, Kenwood never took to quick motoring. Vacationing between the front seats of a typically borrowed van, he’d prefer to have his head cradled on the twisty bits. 

By the way, years later Daughters Suz and Beth reminded us that Kenwood “always got to sit up front….” 

It’s difficult to believe that Kenwood and Balto shared any genes.

This just in: Granddaughter Lily will become a Husky this fall: She’s going to the University of Washington Seattle. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023 

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