We already know what science would do with a 65-million year mosquito sample: make a dinosaur theme park and hire Jeff Golblum to get chased around by velociraptors. But what does science do with a thirty year old mosquito sample? Make a theme park based on hair-rock, Rubik’s cubes, and massive shoulder pads? Unfortunately for the nostalgic among us, science is too socially minded to burden the world with a resurgence of parachute pants and John Hughes movies. Instead they’ve made a key step towards eliminating mosquito-borne viruses, which is marginally cooler than the 80’s, I guess…
The sample in questions was originally found in the Negev Desert of Israel by Hebrew University’s Joseph Peleg. Afterwards, it was shipped around the world, just one in a collection of over 5,000 other mosquito samples, until it was tested by a University of Texas professor named Robert Tesh and his graduate student Farooq Nasar. Nasar discovered that whatever virus the mosquito was carrying, it wouldn’t infect vertebrate cells. From there the virus sample was sent to a lab at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health where a team of grad students got to “deep sequencing” the virus’ DNA. In other words, resequencing nucleotides over and over again to eliminate errors.
The Columbia team found that there were actually two viruses present, one that attacked insect cells and another, which they termed the Eilat Virus, that merely infected them. The second one is what the team was interested in, but they never would have detected it if it weren’t for its more careless roommate going around killing cells and, presumably, being a general slob. Eilat cannot infect or reproduce in animal cells, which is curious enough, but it turns out from the deep sequencing results that Eilat is a member of the alphavirus family. Alphaviruses are a bunch of mosquito-borne miscreants that cause all sorts of diseases in domesticated animals and humans such as “chikungunya, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, western equine encephalitis and eastern equine encephalitis.”
That makes Eilat the Casper the Friendly Ghost of viruses. While all of Eilat’s big brothers go out and infect animals, Eilat just stays in mosquito cells and tries not to be too much of a bother. But Eilat is going to show them. Researchers are using the virus to create vaccines for other alphaviruses. All they have to do is to create a modified version of Eilat with an encasing similar to a dangerous alphavirus, but with Eilat’s chill attitude intact. Thanks Eilat, you a bro. *fist bump*
Before we go, Bwog wants to congratulate NASA’s NuSTAR telescope for 100 days in orbit. NuSTAR’s mission is to map the night sky, particularly searching for massive objects, from black holes to stars that let themselves go two billion years ago. The telescope is a true marvel of engineering, and we know this because the good ol’ Sons and Daughters of Knickerbocker helped build it. Specifically, Columbia engineers made a device that can focus X-Rays by leading them down a concavity filled with over 9,000 aligned mirrors. That’s super important because NuSTAR uses these amplified X-Rays to create images of the space around massive bodies.
And while we’re congratulating, Bwog would be remissed to leave out three Columbia biologists who have been recently recognized. First we have Professors Tom Maniatis and Michael Sheetz, who each have been honored with Lasker Foundation awards (which are often predictors of Nobel prizes- important information for your Nobel pool). Prof. Maniatis is a veteran biochemist who pioneered gene expression research and created the ubiquitous Molecular Cloning Manual. Prof. Sheetz won for his work detailing the function of cytoskeletal motor proteins, which control the movement and positioning of organelles such as mitochondria, membranes of Golgi, and traffic of vesicles in the cells. Last, but not least, Nobel Prize winner Martin Chalfie of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) fame has won the first ever Golden Goose award. Created as a sort of send up to the Golden Fleece awards– which were given to public officials that wasted, or fleeced, government money- the Golden Goose award gives credit to the discoveries that have been made possible through government funding. Prof. Chalfie’s work on GFP allows biochemists to actually see different parts of whatever organism they happen to be studying, which seems simple but is incredibly crucial for research. In that case, GFP is a golden egg indeed, and Chalfie is one well-decorated goose.
How do T-Rexes copulate via Wikimedia Commons