Tuesday 9 May 2023

Creationism in Crisis - What We Can Learn About Evolution From a Single Individual's Genome

Slideshow code developed in collaboration with ChatGPT3 at https://chat.openai.com/

Comparing Genes of 240 Mammal Species—and One Famous Dog—Offers New Insights in Biology, Evolutionary History | HHMI

Still more evidence against creationism is being revealed by data provided by the Zonomia Consortium.

In a series of 11 papers published recently, is one by Professor Beth Shapiro, HHMI Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and director of evolutionary genomics at the UCSC Genomics Institute. In this work Professor Shapiro and her team analysed the genome of the famous sled dog, Balto, the hero of the 1925 'Serum run' to Nome, Alaska:
Balto was a Siberian Husky sled dog who became famous for leading the final leg of a 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska. The serum run was a life-saving mission to deliver diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, which was suffering from an outbreak of the disease. The serum was transported over a distance of 674 miles (1,085 km) by a relay of 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs in the middle of an Alaskan winter. Balto and his musher, Gunnar Kaasen, were responsible for delivering the serum to Nome's hospital. They completed the last leg of the run, covering 53 miles (85 km) from Bluff to Nome, in just over 20 hours. Despite facing blizzard conditions and sub-zero temperatures, Balto and Kaasen successfully delivered the serum to the hospital in Nome, saving countless lives. Balto and Kaasen became instant heroes, and Balto became the most famous of all the dogs who participated in the serum run. A statue of Balto was erected in New York City's Central Park in 1925, just months after the serum run. The statue remains a popular tourist attraction today. In 1927, Balto and the other sled dogs who participated in the serum run were sold to a carnival promoter, who put them on display in sideshows across the United States. A group of concerned citizens eventually raised the money to buy the dogs back and return them to Alaska. Balto lived out the rest of his life at the Cleveland Zoo, where he died in 1933. Today, Balto is remembered as a hero and a symbol of the bravery of all the dogs and mushers who participated in the serum run. His story has been told in numerous books, films, and documentaries, and his legacy continues to inspire people around the world.
  1. Alaska State Library Historical Collections: The 1925 Serum Run to Nome.
  2. Smithsonian Magazine: The Real Story of Balto.
  3. National Park Service: The Serum Run of 1925.
  4. Cleveland Historical: Balto Comes to Cleveland.
  5. New York City Parks: Balto Statue.
Tell me all you know about the famous sled dog Balto, please.
From the Howard Hughes Medical Institute news release:

In a collection of 11 newly published research papers, genomics further proves its worth by identifying species at risk for extinction, predicting the appearance and performance of a legendary sled dog, and illuminating once-dark corners of evolution and biology.

Ever since scientists first read the complete genetic codes of creatures like fruit flies and humans more than two decades ago, the field of genomics has promised major leaps forward in understanding basic questions in biology.


Two of the papers, co-authored by Shapiro and her Santa Cruz team, break new ground by showing how much valuable information can be found in genomes of a single species, such as endangered orcas, or even in the DNA of an individual. That individual is a sled dog named Balto, who has been immortalized in movies and a statue for helping to bring lifesaving diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska in an epic journey across the Alaskan wilderness in the winter of 1925. With just a snippet of the dog's preserved skin and "these amazing new techniques we didn't have before, we were able to do this cool scientific thing," says HHMI postdoc Katie Moon, lead author of the Balto paper and a member of Shapiro's team.


Champion sled dog racer

The stakes were lower for the second paper from Shapiro's team, the sled dog effort, but it was a lot more fun, the researchers say. "I hope people enjoy reading about Balto as much as I enjoyed working on the project," says Moon.

The origins of the project actually go back a few years. Heather Huson, a champion sled dog racer turned Cornell University animal geneticist, was giving a talk at a meeting of sled dog veterinarians when one of the vets in the audience wondered if it would be possible to extract and analyze DNA from preserved hide. He even had a potential study subject in mind—Balto, whose taxidermied body is displayed in a glass case at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Huson was hooked on the idea. "I grew up on the stories about Balto," she recalls. But she had no experience working with old DNA, "and I wasn't going to screw this up," she says. So she reached out to the ancient DNA research community. The path quickly led to Beth Shapiro, a pioneer in revealing the genetic secrets of extinct creatures like mastodons and of ancient humans in the field called paleogenomics. "I reached out to Beth, and she said, 'We can do this,'" says Huson.

The researchers got a sample of Balto's skin from the Cleveland Museum and extracted the dog's DNA from the sample. Moon then did the heavy genetic lifting in UC Santa Cruz's high-tech ancient DNA lab, reading the code of Balto's snippets of DNA enough times to cover his entire genome 40 times over.

Normally, scientists would learn about the genetics of a species in part by looking at genetic variations among different individuals. Balto was just one individual, though, so "the challenge was how to make a research project out of one dog," says Huson. But the team had an ace up their sleeve. In addition to being able to compare the sled dog's genome to the 240 mammals in the Zoonomia Project, they also could tap a genetic repository created by the Broad Institute's Karlsson that has complete genomes of 682 dogs from a wide variety of breeds. "It's an incredible dataset," says Moon. Because of the information it contains "we know so much about dogs—what parts of the genome make them look the way they do or perform the way they do," Moon explains. Or as Shapiro adds, the Balto project "was an opportunity to bring these two datasets together."

Exciting moment

Using just the information in Balto's genes, Kathleen Morrill, then a PhD student in Karlsson's lab at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, was able to predict both the dog's precise height and the fact that his black coat had tan highlights at the edges—which don't even show up in most pictures. A talented artist, Morrill was able to draw a rendering, based on the genetics, that was more accurate than many pictures. "Her drawing was what Balto would have looked like," says Moon. "It was the first time anyone has done this on an individual that's been gone for almost 100 years—and it was a really exciting moment for me." It also validates the idea that scientists can use genomics to accurately envision what long-extinct species—for which no pictures exist—really looked like. "It shows we can do a pretty good job predicting their physical appearance," says Huson.

There were plenty of other scientific nuggets in Balto's DNA as well. Born in the kennel of famous sled dog breeder Leonard Seppala in 1919, Balto was descended from dogs imported from Siberia. "But one of the coolest things is how close Balto is to modern Alaskan sled dogs as well as to the Siberian husky," says Huson. His genome shows a mix of ancestors, with fewer deleterious genes compared to modern purebred breeds like Siberian huskies and Alaskan Malamutes. His DNA is also rich in so-called tissue development genes, which are involved in functions like muscle growth, metabolism, and oxygen consumption. "That’s exactly what you would need in a working dog," says Moon.

Yet the genetics also reveal Balto's limitations. Sled dogs were originally bred for great endurance, but since Balto's time, breeders added in more speed. "Balto might have been a tough sled dog with a lot of endurance, but he wouldn't have been very fast," says Huson.

In fact, sled dog experts know that Balto wasn't actually the real hero of the lifesaving 1925 journey. That honor belongs to a dog named Togo, who led Seppala's team on the longest leg of the 674 mile trek, an astonishing 264 miles (compared to Balto's 53 miles on the final segment). "Balto was the 2nd string dog," says Huson. Not being prime progenitor material, he was neutered, in contrast to Togo, "who is the dog—the foundation of a lot of sled dogs," says Huson. So, the next step, she suggests, is getting a sample from Togo's remains, now preserved in Nome, in order to reveal the next chapter in this canine genetic drama.

More detail is given in the team's structured abstract to their paper in Science:
Structured Abstract


It has been almost 100 years since the sled dog Balto helped save the community of Nome, Alaska, from a diphtheria outbreak. Today, Balto symbolizes the indomitable spirit of the sled dog. He is immortalized in statue and film, and is physically preserved and on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Balto represents a dog population that was reputed to tolerate harsh conditions at a time when northern communities were reliant on sled dogs. Investigating Balto’s genome sequence using technologies for sequencing degraded DNA offers a new perspective on this historic population.


Analyzing high-coverage (40.4-fold) DNA sequencing data from Balto through comparison with large genomic data resources offers an opportunity to investigate genetic diversity and genome function. We leveraged the genome sequence data from 682 dogs, including both working sled dogs and dog breeds, as well as evolutionary constraint scores from the Zoonomia alignment of 240 mammals, to reconstruct Balto’s phenotype and investigate his ancestry and what might distinguish him from modern dogs.


Balto shares just part of his diverse ancestry with the eponymous Siberian husky breed and was more genetically diverse than both modern breeds and working sled dogs. Both Balto and working sled dogs had a lower burden of rare, potentially damaging variation than modern breeds and fewer potentially damaging variants, suggesting that they represent genetically healthier populations. We inferred Balto’s appearance on the basis of genomic variants known to shape physical characteristics in dogs today. We found that Balto had a combination of coat features atypical for modern sled dog breeds and a slightly smaller stature, inferences that are confirmed by comparison to historical photographs. Balto’s ability to digest starch was enhanced compared to wolves and Greenland sled dogs but reduced compared to modern breeds. He carried a compendium of derived homozygous coding variants at constrained positions in genes connected to bone and skin development, which may have conferred a functional advantage.


Balto 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. 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.
Balto, famed 20th-century Alaskan sled dog, shares common ancestry with modern Asian and Arctic canine lineages.
In an unsupervised admixture analysis, Balto’s ancestry, representing 20th-century Alaskan sled dogs, is assigned predominantly to four Arctic lineage dog populations. He had no discernable wolf ancestry. The Alaskan sled dogs (a working population) did not fall into a distinct ancestry cluster but shared about a third of their ancestry with Balto in the supervised admixture analysis. Balto and working sled dogs carried fewer constrained and missense rare variants than modern dog breeds.


We reconstruct the phenotype of Balto, the heroic sled dog renowned for transporting diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska, in 1925, using evolutionary constraint estimates from the Zoonomia alignment of 240 mammals and 682 genomes from dogs and wolves of the 21st century. Balto shares just part of his diverse ancestry with the eponymous Siberian husky breed. Balto’s genotype predicts a combination of coat features atypical for modern sled dog breeds, and a slightly smaller stature. He had enhanced starch digestion compared with Greenland sled dogs and a compendium of derived homozygous coding variants at constrained positions in genes connected to bone and skin development. We propose that Balto’s population of origin, which was less inbred and genetically healthier than that of modern breeds, was adapted to the extreme environment of 1920s Alaska.

Katherine L. Moon et al. ,
Comparative genomics of Balto, a famous historic dog, captures lost diversity of 1920s sled dogs.
Science 380,eabn5887(2023).DOI:10.1126/science.abn5887

Copyright © 2023 The Authors. Published by American Association for the Advancement of Science

Reprinted with kind permission under licence #5544730033826
The regularity with which science like this refutes basic creationist dogma, such as the ludicrous claim that serious biologists are abandoning the Theory of Evolution in favour of the evidence-free creationist magical superstition, is evidence that creationism is not based on scientific evidence. In fact, it shows how creationism ignores evidence and avoids the truth in order to sustain an irrational superstition.

The question then, is what exactly is causing this dwindling band of fanatical extremists to cling to counter-factual beliefs and what motivates the frauds who sell them the childish notions.

Whatever it is, it depends on fools believing falsehoods and having a disdain for the truth. There is no agenda to educate and inform the cult about the facts of what they claim to believe was created by the god they purport to worship.

Thank you for sharing!

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