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New Life for the 1918 Flu?, Egypt's Cats Treated Like Mummy Dearest, Kitty Litter in the RNA World

by Bethany Halford
October 4, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 40


New life for the 1918 flu?

An item that appeared in the Sept. 18 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer suggests that certain researchers should perhaps spend a little less time in the lab and a little more time studying horror films.

Scientists at the University of Washington School of Medicine, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York are making plans to infect monkeys with a deadly flu virus grown from the strain responsible for the 1918 "Spanish flu" pandemic. They plan to study the virus by inserting key genes from the 1918 killer virus--taken from viral DNA that was recovered from exhumed victims of the epidemic--and inserting them into a common flu virus. The researchers hope that their results will lead to better medicines for fighting infectious disease.

"This was the most deadly infectious disease in the history of mankind, killing at least 40 million people," UW microbiologist and project investigator Michael G. Katze told the Post-Intelligencer. "To this day, nobody understands why the virus was so deadly."

In an attempt to quell the fears of horror film fans everywhere, Karen VanDusen, UW's director of environmental health and safety, said that the university intends to be extremely cautious. "Future research will be conducted under biocontainment levels and with specific personal protective equipment that is over and above that which is necessitated by any risk identified," she said.



Egypt's cats treated like mummy dearest

Unearthing other news of formerly ancient, underground chemistry, researchers at the University of Bristol in England recently examined the chemical composition of small mammal mummies from ancient Egypt. Because the ancient Egyptians mummified millions of votive cats, hawks, and ibis, it had been assumed that they did so in a hasty, mass mummy-making manner. However, the Bristol team's research shows that, in fact, great care was taken before sending the cats to the catacombs.

"It's a quite nice list of sophisticated chemicals," Evershed told the New York Times. Evershed's group found chemical markers for animal fats, plant oil, beeswax, and sugar gum. Of particular note were traces of bitumen and Pistacia tree resin--two unusual ingredients that would have been imported.


Kitty Litter in the RNA world

Jonathan Karpel writes from Davis, Calif., about a peculiar coincidence he stumbled across while concurrently reading Amanda Yarnell's "What's That Stuff?" story on Kitty Litter (C&EN, April 26, page 26) and "What Came before DNA?" in the June issue of Discover.

"Yarnell informed us that most of the clumping variety of Kitty Litter is composed of bentonite, which is largely a clay mineral called montmorillonite," Karpel writes. The Discover article also discusses work done with montmorillonite--detailing research done by postdoc Martin Hanczyc and genetics professor Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School. "An earlier researcher had shown that when nucleotides are poured onto the surface of montmorillonite, the nucleotides can fuse together, making short chains of RNA," Karpel continues. "In his studies, Hanczyc mixed RNA with clay and then mixed it with fatty acids, and noted that the clay helps to catalyze the formation of vesicles. What Hanczyc also found was RNA on the clay particles inside the fatty acid vesicles!

"So, the RNA world might have been born in the clay, or, as I speculated to my wife, in Kitty Litter! I wonder what new RNA worlds are born today in those boxes."

This week's column was written by Bethany Halford. Please send comments and suggestions to


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