Though it presents similar symptoms, Haemophilus influenzae is not a flu virus, or even a virus at all, but rather a bacterium that can cause acute infection of the ear, nose and lungs, especially of small children. Untreated, it can lead to much more serious ailments such as pneumonia and meningitis. It was first isolated in 1890 during the influenza pandemic, and was mistakenly thought to cause the disease, hence its species name. The genus name translates as "loves heme", though more specifically it requires a heme precursor for growth. Not detected in any other animal species, H. influenzae is highly adapted to its human host presenting within the nasopharynx of approximately three-quarters of healthy children and adults.

H. influenzae claims two very prestigious biological research laurels to its name. First, in 1978, Hamilton Smith won the Nobel Prize for work he did ten years earlier with the little bugger. One of Smith's graduate students noticed that every time she tried to infect the bacteria with a virus, the virus disappeared. Smith deduced that H. influenzae might contain a special weapon that destroyed the virus. Sure enough, he found that the bacterium wielded a tiny molecular knife, dubbed a restriction enzyme, which chopped up DNA, including the DNA within the virus. This restriction enzyme became an invaluable tool for genetic research, allowing DNA strands to be chopped up into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Steps toward the second distinction began in 1993 when Smith convinced Craig Venter, then head of TIGR (future president of Celera Genomics) to take on the project of sequencing all of the 1.8 million DNA base pairs of H. influenzae's genome. Venter agreed and two years later H. influenzae received the incomparable distinction of being the first living thing to have its entire DNA code sequenced and spelled out in T's, C's, G's and A's. You can access this sequence at

Wickelgren, Ingrid. The Gene Masters. Times Books, New York, 2002.

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