We wish it didn’t have to be this
way -- Today in
Rats would be just fine by us – but the plain fact is that mice are the
most popular mammalian model in modern research. It is through their
day-to-day existence (or sudden lack thereof) that we learn some of the
most important lessons about ourselves.
And mice have always had a lot to teach us.
Since humans transitioned from hunter-gatherers to farmers in Southwest Asia’s
Fertile Crescent around 9,000 B.C., grain-and-morsel-hunting mice have challenged humans to compete,
to adapt, to innovate. Indeed, the word mouse derives from the Sanskrit mush meaning “to steal”; and Egyptians
deified cats, in part, because of their ability to fend off rodents. Greeks and
Romans worshipped mice, and the tiny critters became positive symbols in many Asian
But somewhere along the line, the relationship between mice and men flipped. By the beginning
of the 20th century, the idea of keeping mice as domesticated pets spread from
Europe to the United States, and in 1900, a retired schoolteacher in
Massachusetts named Abbie Lathrop began a breeding business to supply mice to hobbyists and biologists,
including researchers from Harvard University. Mice were observed to share many
biological similarities with humans, and their small size, low cost, prolific
reproduction habits, and docile temperament made them ideal for study.
Upon the rediscovery in 1900 of Mendel’s Laws, which describe the inheritance
of traits from one generation of plants to the next, scientists sought to apply
them to animals, and mice were chosen as the natural experimental subjects. Throughout the
second half of the 20th century, genetically modified mice became prevalent in cancer
research. And in 2002, mice were again at the center of a breakthrough in genetics,
when Nature published the mouse genome sequence, which bears a striking resemblance to
ours. Of course, much of this research is possible only because mice are not protected under the Animal
Welfare Act in the United States; instead, the National Institutes of Health
oversees their humane handling under the Public Health Service Act.
We hope you’ll drop by from time to time to see what our furry friends have
been up to. To whet your appetite, we’d recommend checking out Chapter 1 of this short history of the mouse in genetics studies by E.J. Eisen of
North Carolina State.