In 1925, diphtheria — a potentially fatal disease in children — broke out in Nome, Alaska. Serum containing antibodies must be urgently shipped to a remote town. The task falls to a sleigh driver and his team of dogs. The sleigh ran about 1,100 km in 5 and a half days, in the harsh conditions of blizzard and white snow, delivered medicine and saved many lives.
One of the hero sled dogs is Balto, whose legendary energy is reminiscent of the Jack London dog Buck. The Call of the Wild, which was recently made into a movie by Harrison Ford. By chance, Balto was immortalized in a sculpture in Central Park, New York.
Recently, a team of scientists led by Katherine Moon, a geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, decided to study Balto’s DNA from the dog’s taxonomic remains. In addition to determining that the Balto was more genetically diverse than most dogs today, they also worked out its appearance. Balto, they say, is 21.7 inches tall and has a mostly black double coat with a hint of white. Their findings are in agreement with the few available photographs of Balto. It is a marvel of science that the remains of a dead cell can tell so much.
Elaine Ostrander, a canine geneticist who was not involved in Moon’s study, told Science that Balto’s genes could be a blueprint for promoting today’s healthier dogs.