In 1925, diphtheria — a disease that can be fatal in children — broke out in Nome, Alaska. Serum containing antibodies had to be rushed to the remote town. The task fell upon a sled driver and his team of dogs. The sled drove for about 1,100 km in five-and-a-half days, under punishing conditions of blizzard and white-out, delivered the medicine, and saved many lives.
One of the heroic sled dogs was Balto, whose legendary energy is reminiscent of the canine Buck in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, recently made into a Harrison Ford movie. Balto, incidentally, has been immortalised in a sculpture that stands in Central Park, New York.
Recently, a bunch 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 taxidermy remains. Apart from determining that Balto was more genetically diverse than most dogs of today, they also figured out how he looked. Balto, according to them, stood 21.7 inches tall and had a double layered coat of fur that was mostly black with a little white. Their findings agree well with the few photographs available of Balto. It is a marvel of science that a relic of a dead cell can tell so much.
Elaine Ostrander, a dog geneticist who was not part of Moon’s study, told Science magazine that Balto’s genes could be a blueprint for promoting healthier dogs today.