100+ years of influenza research at the University of Wisconsin AND Epigenetics and Gene Regulation (Double Header)

For October 3, 2018
I can’t remember when I first heard that along with the Great War which killed some 20 million people came a Great Plague—the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919—that killed an estimated 50 million.  The pandemic was certainly part of Professor Marilyn Tufte’s bacteriology class at UW-Platteville in the spring of 1977. That was the class in which I first learned about viruses, phages, and their influence on the lives of people and on the arc of history.
Today the flu continues to kill. It can scythe in wide swaths through populations of the elderly. It is fickle, dodgy and deadly.
In January 2018 the CDC’s influenza chief expected about 56,000 flu deaths in US for the 2017-2018 season.   In the event, just last week the CDC announced the US death toll.  It came to 80,000.
Why is this not a shocking story burning on the front pages of newspapers everywhere? If 8 people in the US died from Ebola, there would be a famine of ink.  But 80,000 dead from influenza?  Hey—it’s just the flu.
While our relationship with the flu is perplexing, UW-Madison’s long tradition of research on the virus & on the disease is enlightening.
This week (October 3) at 7:00 pm Bernard EasterdayYoshihiro Kawaoka and Chris Olsen of the School of Veterinary Medicine will share 100+ years of influenza research at the University of Wisconsin.   This talk is the first in a series of three this fall commemorating the centennial of the Pandemic of 1918-1919.
But wait—there’s more!  We’ve scheduled a major league double-header for October 3 worthy of the playoffs.
But first, some backstory.  In the fall of 1977 I took genetics.  The textbook spent chapters covering Mendel & mitosis & meiosis. It waxed on about chi squares and Punnett squares and the Hardy-Weinberg Principle.  But somewhere toward the final chapter, the book dedicated a couple pages to a thing called “epigenetics.”  In contrast to the clockwork of Mendel’s peas, this was a bizarre voodoo phenomenon, almost smacking of Lamarck’s heritability of acquired characteristics.
But 41 years later geneticists now have a better grip on the idea of heritable changes in gene expression.  These can result from changes in modification or ‘decoration’ of DNA bases, rather than a change in the sequence of those bases.  If genetics focuses on the spelling of DNA and the order of the four bases, then perhaps epigenetics can be thought of as the diacritical marks of our genetic language.
At 8:15pm is Game 2 with Frank Pugh of Penn State taking us through his lab’s research in epigenetics and gene regulation.
I’m grateful to John Denu and Ann Denu of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery in partnering with me to offer Professor Pugh’s public talk as part of Wednesday Nite @ The Lab

Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Cooperative Extension