Ever heard of a Jackalope? Myth meets microbiology

Having just received an email from wordpress encouraging me to be a better blogger (!), I think I should write my first proper post. As I sit here looking at the draft of a new educational resource for post-16 education I have written (all about viruses), I think I will share some of that with you.

I have always been fascinated by scale and size of small things (which I suppose is why I love microbiology so much), but imagine living before we knew exactly what was out there? Not really understanding how tiny microscopic microbes could affect us in such a potentially devastating way! One story that caught my eye is all about linking myth with science.

Various unusual phenomena, which were at one time unexplainable, can now be attributed to microbes. One interesting story is the tale of the Jackalope (Lepus temperamentalus). First spotted in 1829 in the United States, this mythical creature is said to have the body of a rabbit with the horns of an antelope. American folklore says the creature would roam the countryside, causing chaos and playing tricks on cowboys (the Jackalope was able to imitate human voices, often repeating shepherds singing to their flock). However, people were keen to find them as their milk apparently held medicinal properties. Although they were shy animals, they could become dangerous if approached. They were very rare and not often spotted, which was said to be because they could only breed during severe electrical storms.Image

In 1933 the science underpinning this unusual, but often believed myth was brought to light. Dr Richard Shope (the man responsible for also discovering the flu virus) with the help of Dr Francis Rous determined that a virus was responsible for causing cancer in rabbits. At this time, it was unknown that viruses were able to cause cancer, so this was quite a discovery. Known as Shope papilloma virus (or SPV), infection can lead to the development of hard tumours (usually on the head), which can look like horns. It is now commonly believed that any sightings of the ‘Jackalope’ were probably an unlucky rabbit that had been infected with SPV.

The discovery of SPV provided the first model for a virus causing cancer in a mammal, and the work carried out by Rous eventually gained him the Nobel Prize in 1966. Another virus, known as Human papilloma virus (or HPV) has been identified as the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer in human females. Work carried out on the rabbit virus has helped researchers develop a vaccine for HPV. This vaccine was approved for human use in 2006, and has since then been used regularly throughout the world. The vaccine has been hugely successful, reducing HPV-related disease in teenage girls by up to a half. Therefore, in some unusual way, we may have a mythical singing rabbit to thank for HPV vaccination…


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