Mice People: Cultures of Science
By Clare S Ryan, on 9 March 2012
Gail Davies (UCL Geography) travels around the world looking at laboratory mice, and the scientists who study them. To find out why a geographer would be spending her life doing this, I went to hear her in conversation with Steve Cross – Head of UCL’s Public Engagement Unit (and a closet geneticist) – at the event Mice People: Cultures of Science organised as part of the Humanimals season at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology.
Gail is a human geographer interested in how science works, both in terms of the interface between nature and culture, and the spatial aspects of science.
A big part of her work is looking at how science varies internationally. Taking an extremely broad view of science, there have been two big “science migrations”. The first was after World War II when many European scientists moved to America. The second is happening now, with a huge shift in science going towards south-east Asia.
However, scientists don’t move around the globe alone. In the case of quite a few biologists, they take their mice with them. In fact, as Gail explained, if you take away apparatus, knowledge of standard methods etc., “the international knowledge economy looks rather furry”.
At this point, Gail put up a massive chart showing the genealogy of all the mice strains that have been studied by science and their locations. Imagine a genealogy map from the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?, but much more scary.
Looking at the chart, Gail pointed out that the first people to breed mice (known as ‘fanciers’ in the trade) were in China more than 200 years ago.
The first mice to be bred for use in a laboratory were owned by an American called Abby Lathrop in the early 20th century. Her farm in Massachusetts (which at one point had up to 11,000 mice) was the first to sell mice to labs, and those mice are the forefathers of all the lab specimens in the world today.
The interesting thing about mice, and the infuriating thing for scientists, is that they mutate (i.e. their genes randomly change) a lot. No, really. A lot.
If you take a group of mice of a particular strain and split them into two groups (and then, say, take one of the groups to Singapore with you for your new job) within in just 10 generations, you will have a completely new strain of mice. This is known as “genetic drift” and makes it pretty hard to do standardised experiments.
And that’s just one of the problems. A lab’s “mouse house” is a hard thing to control – apart from genetic drift, scientists have to consider human error, the microbial environment in different environments and rogue local mice having sex with the lab mice through the cage bars. (Surprisingly common, apparently.)
So, considering these factors, which mice do biologists chose to use for big international studies, such as the Knockout Mouse project? This is where the tribal nature of science comes in. Different biologists like different mice and have different relationships with them.
For example, geneticists rarely actually come into contact with their mice, spending most of their time with test tubes full of DNA, whereas specific mice breeders are very concerned about the bodies of their mice and their ‘mousiness’.
Stem cell scientists perhaps have the most complex relationship – they breed ‘humanised mice’, which have deficient immune systems that can be replaced with stem cell-generated systems to reproduce the human system. In effect, these mice are related to individual humans.
Gail told a nice story of a scientist who studies the popular C57 black/6 mouse, which is know for its peculiar behavioural trait of pulling out hair.
He studies the genetics of these mice to inform the treatment of the human equivalent, trichotillomania – when people pull their hair out. This scientist not only spends time with patient groups, but goes to conferences and ‘acts mouse’ to highlight welfare issues.
This was a really interesting talk, with a very well-informed audience, many of whom were scientists working in the mouse community. Gail, Steve and the audience discussed some really big ideas in science including globalisation, the politics of science funding and the constraints of the mice genome to name a few.
Thankfully for the non-geneticists there was also a splattering of more light-hearted moments. Who knew some mice had passports? Steve Cross’s favourite gene is called ‘cheap date’? And that the manager of the Grant Museum pickled a mouse that he found scampering around the museum floors?
Image: Laboratory mouse (Source: Wikimedia Commons)