Through their lens: Ami Thakrar considers the result if modern biotechnololgy had tackled yellow fever

This summer we’re sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California. We asked those students to contribute to our Instagram photos and YouTube videos about life in the lab, and write about their experiences.

In addition to carrying out a stem cell research project, the students were expected to carry out a secondary project relating their work to other areas of study.

Ami Thakrar submitted this photo of herself working in the lab to our #CIRMStemCellLab Instagram feed. She did a stem cell research internship this summer in the laboratory of Joel Rothman at University of California, Santa Barbara.

Between 1840 and 1860, yellow fever was able to make a lasting impact on the antebellum American south. Yellow fever is a viral flavivirus transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito. Additionally, yellow fever is an RNA virus. In this case, the virion RNA is single-stranded and functions just like mRNA. Upon the infection of the host cell, this mRNA is immediately translated and replicated. As a tropical disease unable to survive in temperatures lower than fifty degrees Fahrenheit, it made its way from the Caribbean into the port cities of the American South in the summer months. The fever severely impacted the Southern economy. The first reason for the decline of the Southern economy is that, according to various articles from the time period, immigrants were more likely to catch the disease than their native Southern counterparts. As a result, more immigrants, out of fear of the yellow fever, chose to move to the North. The influx of immigrants was able to create a more productive economy in the North. Meanwhile, in the South, in addition to the lack of immigrants present on account of the virus, the prevalence of the yellow fever resulted in the deserting of towns in an attempt to escape infection, and thus the closing of shops, which led to a decline in the overall Southern economy. As a result, potential investors saw the South in a negative light, and chose instead to invest their money into the North.

My primary research project this summer was identifying if the gene CED-4, a gene essential to programmed cell death, would also play a role in the process of embryogenesis in the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans. I also aimed to determine which genes, if any, worked in conjunction with ced-4 in embryogenesis. I was able to knock down the function of different genes in normal as well as in ced-4 deficient worms in order to observe the role of that gene in embryogenesis. This was done by conducting RNA-interference based screens. The introduction of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) through bacterial feeding leads to the disabling of a specific, targeted mRNA. The dsRNA interferes with the natural process of the mRNA, which now is unable to create the protein for which it codes, thus knocking down the function of the target gene.

Had RNA-interference by means of bacterial feeding been present and applicable to humans in the American south in the 1800’s, it could have disabled the mRNA of the yellow fever virus, knocking down its function in the host cells. This would have prevented the spread of yellow fever, and prevented the severe depopulation of port cities, such as New Orleans, that occurred due to the exposure to yellow fever. This prevention of the yellow fever would have dramatically changed the course of our American history. One potential outcome of an elimination of the yellow fever is that the Southern economy would have been much stronger economically when entering the Civil War, which could have been enough of a factor to result in a Southern victory in the American Civil War. Had this been the case, slavery and racism would have been prevalent much longer in America, if not still prevalent in society today. Another potential outcome of the eradication of yellow fever is that the South would have received a large number of immigrants, instead of the North. This would have led to industrialization, as with immigrants, the South would have enough labor force, means of developing new technology, and would draw in more investors for capital to industrialize. If the South had industrialized it could also have changed the outcome of the Civil War.

In conclusion, if RNA-interference had been utilized to knock down the function of the viral mRNA in yellow-fever-infected cells, it would have radically changed the course of American history. The evidence shows that the eradication of yellow fever in the antebellum American South would have resulted in an economically strong South, which could have led to a Southern victory in the Civil War. Had the South won the Civil War, it may have had a negative impact on our country as a whole. Our lives today would have been entirely different in terms of the options available for immigrants and African-Americans; racism would have been more widely accepted in society, as well.

Ami Thakrar

Ami sent us these videos of her experience

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